Tonka toys are returning to Mound, the west metro city that manufactured them for more than three decades.

The Westonka Historical Society will permanently display vintage fire trucks, cement mixers, box vans, steam shovels and farm trucks in Mound City Hall, just a few blocks from the factory where the shiny metal toys rolled off the assembly line by the thousands from 1947 to 1982.

The city voted unanimously to approve a lease with the Historical Society last week, and the decision was followed with a round of applause. Consolidation of city staff and a new police partnership with Orono opened up all five rooms in the building’s second floor.

“We’re so anxious to be in a place that could indeed become a permanent place,” said Pam Myers, president of the Westonka Historical Society Board. Among the group’s treasures are a lifetime collection of Tonka toys in their original boxes donated by a former company CEO, two major collections of Andrews Sisters music and memorabilia from the 1940s and later, and hundreds of antique picture postcards of Lake Minnetonka boats and hotels at the turn of the 1900s.
The society primarily serves Westonka, which includes about 24,000 residents of Mound, Minnetrista, Orono, Navarre, Spring Park and Minnetonka Beach.

“The cities have become aware that a museum is a way to preserve their history, and they’re excited about that,” Myers said.

The joy of history

The nonprofit society has drifted from place to place in recent years, and is currently housed in a moldy, 100-year-old bank building with two rooms — the former bank president’s office and a vault with a rusty antique safe.

Society volunteer Mary McKenzie was helping to pack up boxes there last week. Mc­Kenzie has a special interest in learning about the history of her own house, and has been interviewing people about some of the older boathouses along the lake.

“Learning about history helps us,” McKenzie said. “It gives us a foundation, like a home base, and a feeling of belonging.”

The Internet opens all kinds of avenues to learn about history, she said, but it can’t duplicate the feeling of studying history where it actually happened, and the three-dimensional experience of seeing and touching objects.

“You can’t see everything in a photo, and you can’t take a photo of everything,” she said.
Vern Brandenburg, a board member and retired construction manager, said he intends to bring his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to the museum, and may even tell some stories of what it was like to work for Tonka Toys.

Brandenburg said the area has a rich history, and even the city’s name was derived from the prehistoric Indian mounds built in sacred places near the lake. “If we don’t care about the history that’s going on around us, who’s going to tell the ones that follow behind us?” Brandenburg said. “It’s an ongoing thing.”

Music and memories

Myers said board members and some of the society’s 100 members have stored donations for years in their own homes.

Besides a huge number of toys, the Tonka collection includes the company’s incorporation documents and every catalog and newsletter that it ever printed, she said.

The Andrews Sisters grew up in Minneapolis, but spent summers with uncles who lived on Lake Minnetonka. The trio became famous on the radio in the late 1930s and was the most popular female vocal group in the 1940s, when they recorded “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Rum and Coca-Cola” and other hits. They traveled widely to visit American troops at home and abroad during World War II.

One of the collections includes more than 200 Andrews Sisters vinyl records in their jackets, 300 pieces of sheet music, eight scrapbooks, 10 movie posters and 700 photos and newspaper/magazine articles, Myers said.

The postcard collection shows Minnetonka in its heyday of the late 1800s and early 1900s, she said, when there were few roads and cars, and thousands of people took streetcars and trains to the lake.

“Women in long dresses and fancy hats, and men in coats and ties and hats, hundreds of people in boats went to hotels and cottages and docks,” she said, and to a large amusement park on Big Island.

The society also has a large number of maps, phone directories and school yearbooks to help the public research their homes or their family histories, Myers said. “Before there were streets, every cottage had a name, and we have the old telephone directories that have the names of those cottages,” she said.

Myers said it will take some time for the all-volunteer group to complete the move and arrange displays in their new home. “We might have an open house at the end of May to show that we’re here and we’re happy to be in our new digs, and then do a gala grand opening in the fall,” she said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388