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Crafting toys for those in need

Phil Pfuehler photo. Jim Foster of River Falls, maker of toy wooden cars, holds a 1930 Model A sedan he built recently. The car happens to be the same as the first real car Foster bought used in 1939 as a 16-year-old old in Mankato, Minn., for $49. "I had that car all through high school," he said. "Too bad I don't have it now. It's probably worth thousands."

For years Jim Foster has made and donated hundreds of small wooden cars for his church's bazaar and for a local Christmas program aimed at needy families. He wants no recognition for these efforts.

"I'm not looking for publicity," said the 89-year-old retiree from River Falls. "I'm just doing my part for people in need and maybe giving them something to put under their Christmas trees that they wouldn't otherwise have had.

"The cars have also given me something to do and it keeps me out of mischief. There's also the satisfaction of seeing it through from start to finish and then giving it away."

Foster, who's long enjoyed the woodworking craft in a basement workshop, began making toys for his six grandchildren in the 1970s and '80s -- trains, tables, chairs, little rockers, barns, animals and, eventually, antique cars.

In the 1990s he donated some of his toy model cars to the United Methodist Church in River Falls.

"I took a few to the minister for him to give kids who were hospitalized," Foster said. "I also gave some away for children in the Sunday School classes."

Later a number of his cars were sold at the annual church bazaar where proceeds benefited the church's ministry. For the last decade, Foster has donated scores of toy cars for the Sharing Families Christmas program. Some cars find their way to needy families who are sponsored by the River Falls Lions Club, of which Foster is a lifelong member.

This year another three dozen cars are lined up and ready to be donated for Sharing Families.

Foster's toy car-making reputation has spread. He sells cars to several stores in the Twin Cities. And sometimes people -- parents or grandparents -- call him and order them as gifts.

"Each year I wonder if I'll be around to make more of them for the following year," Foster said. "I've got to stay healthy in order to keep doing it. I'm not a youngster anymore.

"It's hard for me to stand after about 15 minutes. Mostly it's just the sawing and drilling where I'm standing. Then I can sit to do the rest -- sanding, touching up, and finishing."

Born in Greensboro, Ala., Foster said his woodworking interest began early. He especially liked shop classes in high school.

Today, stashed in a desk drawer at home, he still has two of his school shop creations -- an ink blotter, from 1937, and a pencil holder, from 1936.

Most of Foster's career was in the furniture business where much of the merchandise was made of wood. After moving from Rochester, Minn., in 1955, Foster built a house in River Falls (the same one where he still lives) and ran Tousley-Foster Furniture on Main Street until 1972.

Foster follows a precise formula for toy-car making: Decide model to make; draw car with windows; make template for body and fenders; cut out body on band saw; cut out fenders on band saw; sand; drill holes for windows; drill holes for axel pegs; glue fenders on; use Vibro-Marker to scratch out the make and model on car's bottom; apply two coats of polyurethane; glue axel pegs with wheels on.

The toy cars vary in length from five to 10 inches. The wheels are 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. Foster occasionally uses birch but generally begins work with a stack of two-by-four pine boards. Since 1990 he's made nearly 1,800 cars using 25 different models. They sell for $15 wholesale, $25 retail.

"I give away more than I sell," he said. "I just want to be of service to others."

Foster draws and designs his car models from pictures in books or, more often now, from images on the Internet.

"I haven't added a new model for several years," he said. "The first-time drawing takes a lot of time. I just wonder how much longer I'll be doing this period -- let alone trying to come up with any more new models."

Foster and his wife Merce, 91, have been married for 68 years. He said every so often she has to get after him as he labors in the basement.

"I've got an exhaust fan but it's not strong enough and she warns me about the sawdust that gets upstairs," Foster admitted.

Foster typically builds his toy cars over fall and winter. He says that means putting in eight-hour days -- just like a regular job. By spring the cars are boxed and inventoried.

Then he checks out to relax from May through October by taking his travel trailer to Prairie Lake, Minn. Nearby is a family cabin where friends and relatives gather.

"That's my time to fish and have fun," he said. "I do a lot of watching -- beanbag tournaments, water skiers, swimmers, you name it. I do more sitting than anything else."