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This story originally aired in the Dec. 23, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Steve Conlon knew everything about the traditional Appalachian folk toys he and his wife Ellie manufactured at the Mountain Craft Shop Co. in Proctor, West Virginia.
He knew the history, the principle of physics that made them work, and the right technique to make that ball on a string float up into the air and come down perfectly inside the wooden cup.
There was one thing Steve didn’t know, though. He didn’t know who would make these traditional toys once he and his wife were gone.
“How will it play out? We don’t know yet,” he said in a 2019 interview with Inside Appalachia. “The reality of the situation is we are manufacturing in America. Look around you. There’s a lot of competition.”
A year after that interview, Ellie died of lung cancer. A year after her death, Steve died from leukemia. That left the business in the hands of their son Terra.
“Terra — it’s Latin for ‘earth,’” he said. “I was an earth child, born on the living room floor.”
Terra lives in San Francisco now, where he’s a computer programmer. He tried to run the business from afar since his parents’ passing but it hasn’t really worked. The company lost money last year. So he decided to try and sell — but that didn’t work out either. At least, not the way Terra wanted.
“I had buyers that were interested in the businesses in Pennsylvania or New York. And ideally I wanted to keep it in the location,” he said.
Mountain Craft Shop Co. is so tied to Wetzel County — so tied to West Virginia — that even the wood used to make the toys comes from local trees that Terra’s dad would cut, mill and dry himself.
One day, while Terra was back in the Mountain State trying to wrap up his parents’ affairs, Fred Goddard stopped by. Goddard is a minister who lives just a few miles up the road.
“I saw some things for sale and I thought, ‘That would be handy on the farm,’” he said. “So I pulled in and [Terra] began to talk about the toy store and I began to share my memories with him.”
It turns out Goddard’s relationship with these toys goes back even farther than Terra’s — and even farther than Terra’s parents. Steve and Ellie Conlon were not the Mountain Craft Shop Co.’s original owners. They bought it in 2002 from its founder, Dick Schnake. He started the company in the mid-1960s. He was a mechanical engineer by trade but didn’t manufacture the toys himself. Schnake handled research and development and farmed out manufacturing to a staff of artisans.
But Schnake displayed his toys in a little showroom near his home, where shoppers could take them for a test drive. Goddard’s mother used to take him to that toy store when he was a little boy.
“Dick would stand and talk for hours,” Goddard said. “He would explain how the toys were made. He wanted us to see every toy in the store, not just what we were interested in. He wanted to show us everything.”
Goddard doesn’t only have memories — he still has some of the toys his mother purchased from Schnake.
“I have a rubber band gun. And that one, of course, tended to get me in some trouble around the house,” he said.
As Goddard walked around the Conlons’ shop, Terra floated an idea.
“All of a sudden he said ‘I could sell you this business.’ And I’m thinking ‘No, I could never own this,’” Goddard said. “And he made an offer and I realized, I can’t pass this up.”
The timing was almost too perfect. Goddard lost his wife of 33 years to COVID-19 last December. Since then, he found love again with a widow who lost her husband to COVID-19. They’re engaged now and Goddard’s fiancé, as fate should have it, is an amateur woodworker.
Goddard plans to keep any current employees who want to stay. He also plans to recruit some additional elves to help build toys. The company won’t be able to stay in its current facility but Goddard plans to find a storefront where he can display the toys just like Dick Schnake once did.
Terra says it’s what his parents would’ve wanted.
“I’m super pumped that not only is it someone in West Virginia, but it’s someone in Wetzel County,” he said. “My mom spent so much time, so much effort, developing the ‘West Virginia grown’ and Mountain State marketing. I like that.”
Fred’s just happy he’ll be able to give kids the same kinds of toys — and the same kinds of memories — he has.
“This area, this state, this country, this world, needs this store,” he said.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.