At historic Colonial grounds, old toys for a new audience
Family Fun Day a time for long-ago games and crafts
FORT JOHNSON Collin and Catarina Healy couldn’t quite figure out how to make the buzz saw twirl.
The historical toy — made out of a thin piece of circular wood, two dowels and some string — was a favorite among Colonial children who had nothing to do after a Sunday service. It was primitive, much like the old-fashioned yo-yo, spinning top and Jacob’s ladder. But, boy, it was addictive.
So even though Collin, 11, couldn’t pull his arms the right way to make it spin and Catarina, 8, kept getting her long brown hair stuck in the string, the two kept trying and trying until finally they lit up with joy at a distinctive whizzing sound.
“Yup, yup, you got it,” said Alessa Wylie, museum director at Old Fort Johnson, the historic two-story brick building west of Amsterdam occupied by Sir William Johnson during the 1750s and 1760s.
“It’s amazing,” she continued. “Universally, the kids will wind it up and then just hold it. But you gotta keep moving your arms. It’s not a passive toy. And it gets addicting — you just do it and do it until you can’t anymore.”
On the second of only two Family Fun Days scheduled at the fort this summer, attendance was sparse — likely siphoned off by other nearby events happening Saturday, theorized site manager Scott Haefner.
“They’re celebrating the 250th anniversary of the construction of Johnson Hall in Johnstown today, so I think all the Johnson fans have probably been sucked up to the other house,” he said, with a chuckle.
Time with history
Still, those who did show up Saturday — typically older history buffs and families with young kids — seemed to enjoy the quality time they could spend with educators and re-enactors. And there were some interesting activities on hand, too. At one table was a quill-writing demonstration. At another, a tinsmith hammered whistles and spun toys on a stake with a rawhide mallet.
Inside the museum on site, the Healy siblings admired the old-fashioned toys with great curiosity.
Their mother’s friend, Geoff Storm, is a published historian who has researched the Mohawk Valley extensively throughout his career, and brings the kids out to historic sites around the region for similar events.
Catarina played with a Jacob’s ladder, a toy made with blocks of wood held together by ribbons, and said that while the toys were fun to play with, she would probably get bored if she couldn’t play her favorite computer game, Minecraft, after a while.
The fort decided to host Family Fun Days this year after recognizing there might be an audience for such educational events.
“We always do these school programs for fourth graders where we set up stations, divide them into four groups, and do baking in the bake oven, writing with a quill pen and candle making,” explained Haefner. “So the kids spend 20 minutes at each station and get to see the fort. But then we had a lot of kids who drag their parents back after they’ve been here who say, ‘Oh, mom, we went to this place and we did all this cool stuff.’ So we thought this would be a good opportunity to do a couple of these days where we do the same kind of things, but for the general public.”
At the tinsmithing table outside, Steve Wylie pounded the corner of a tin square so that it was curved.
He picked it up, examined it, and placed it back on the steel stake to hammer the opposite corner. He picked it up, held the pointed corners between the soft padding of his thumb and forefinger, and blew on it.
“This is a very simple toy called a spinner,” he said, as the tin square spun like a pinwheel.
Tinsmiths — when not making cups, sconces, candle boxes, tea chests and candelabras — would make toys for young children in their free time like the spinner or a whistle, he said.
So how does a modern-day computer-systems architect get into such an old trade?
“Well, you hang around historic sites and every once in a while you run into someone who’s doing a demonstration and it sparks your interest,” said Wylie, with a laugh. “And there’s a master tinsmith who, every spring gives classes, and I started taking those. And now I’m just a guy who pours money into all these old fashioned tools.”