Remembering toys before electronics

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Dennis Hines | October 2, 2015

BELOIT — John Sabaka's vast toy collection has been stored away for many years in boxes in his basement, but now those toys have been released from their long hibernation.

Sabaka, of Beloit, recently donated some of his collection to the Beloit Historical Society's new toy exhibit, which is located in the Lincoln Center, 845 Hackett St. The exhibit features toys and games from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“A person will walk in and just get a feel for the good ol' days when people actually roller skated, played checkers, made their dolls talk, played musical instruments and just kept their imaginations going,” said Paul Kerr, executive director for the Beloit Historical Society. “Whereas today, (toys) are a bit different. They're more digital and video.”

Sabaka said it took him several trips to transport his collection to the historical society.

“I brought a few carloads at a time,” Sabaka said. “I figured a person could walk through this exhibit in a short time and appreciate it. It's just a nice variety of toys.”

Some of the items Sabaka donated for the exhibit included his train set, Tonka toy trucks, chemistry sets and toy guns.

“I had a lot of fun with the trains. I remember the Tonka toys, too, and the experimental lab,” Sabaka said. “I had a chemistry set ... It was dangerous. You could blow the house down.”

Sabaka said that as a kid they loved to play cowboys and Indians. Cap guns were big in the '50s, too.

“It's not so politically correct today, I admit that,” Sabaka said. “(Cap guns) would be a no-no today.”

Other items from his collection included a Green Bay Packers bobblehead doll, plastic toy soldiers, comic books, Cracker Jack prizes from the 1950s and ceramic figurines of past presidents.

“What I would do with (the president figurines) was play football with them, and Harry Truman was always my quarterback, and the bigger presidents were my linemen,” Sabaka said.

Sabaka also donated some of his children's toys from the 1980s, including Hot Wheel sets, Barbie dolls, Cabbage Patch dolls, My Little Pony dolls and Master of the Universe, Star Wars, G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and vehicles.

“I said, 'I could bring some '80s toys,' and (the historical society) said, 'We'll take it,' so that's how it morphed into an exhibit,” Sabaka said. “We decided the '80s were enough because after that you're getting so many Game Boys. I think we have a good selection with the Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls. There's a lot of different toys.”

The exhibit also features old albums, Fisher Price toys, antique dolls and games such as Twister, Clue, Operation and Yahtzee situated in a Radio Flyer wagon.

“The radio part of the name was a tribute to Guglielmo Marconi, who transported the first radio signal across the U.S.,” Sabaka said. “The flyer part was in tribute to Charles Lindberg who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic. So, they combined the radio and the flyer and called it Radio Flyer.”

Sabaka said toys from the 1950s were more gender specific compared to the toys of today.

“The 1950s was the height of the Cold War, so the boys were encouraged to go into engineering and the sciences, so you had a lot of electro sets, erector sets and the atomic long range canyon toy,” Sabaka said. “The girls had the domestic cooking toys. You wouldn't do that today.”

Sabaka said he has kept his toys in good condition, but he never had the desire to sell them.

“A plumber will come in and say, 'Don't throw this stuff out. Let me buy some of this stuff before you do,'” Sabaka said. “So, I've just saved them. I'm not a hoarder, because they're in really good shape. I've saved them in boxes, so I was real happy to display this, because they've just been in the basement.”

Sabaka said his only regret is no longer having a baseball and football card collection that his mother threw away.

“I had some great cards from the 1950s. I had all the All-Stars, and I might even of had a card where Hank Aaron was batting the wrong way in the picture, so that would've been worth a lot of money,” Sabaka said. “I always thought about the baseball and football cards that got thrown away. I had a lot of Golden Books that were given away, but that's fine. Someone got use out of them. I had a plastic Fort Apache and metal Alamo, and I don't know where they are, but my lovely brother could have them.”

The toy exhibit will be on display for about six months. The exhibit room also features permanent items, including a double-stock pump, old television sets, scales from Fairbanks Morse, military artifacts, old voting machines and Cold War-era survival kit.

“There was a period in U.S. history where we thought we were going to get bombed in the 1950s and 1960s, so (the kit) represents civil defense,” Kerr said. “I don't know if schools or businesses were issued these things. I think the city was definitely issued these  things. The idea was you're living underground or in your basement.”

The Lincoln Center also includes the Ted Perring Sports Hall of Fame, Arthur Missner Veterans Gallery and Memorial, Beloit Gallery, Beloit Hall of Fame and Luebke Family Memory Library.

“We encourage people to come and see this stuff, and it doesn't take that long,” Sabaka said. “It's not the Museum of Science and Industry where you're here for hours. You walk through and enjoy it. You're always welcome to see it.”

Kerr said people are welcome to donate items to the historical society.

“We're a repository for Beloit history,” Kerr said. “If you have things related to Beloit or if you have letters, diaries or photographs, those are always nice to have.”

The Lincoln Center is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday or by appointment. For more information, call 608-365-7835 or beloithistoricalsociety.com.

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