Tonka toy trucks originated from the Mound Metalcraft Company, based in Mound, Minnesota, west of Minneapolis. The Tonka brand was partially named after the lake Mound sits on, Lake Minnetonka, sometimes referred to as "Tonka." What started off as a small company in the basement of a schoolhouse turned into the world's most famous toy trucks that delighted every child elbow-deep in sand and mud.
TRI MOTOR COMPANY
Avery F. Crounse (1890-1960) and his fellow University of Minnesota alumni Lynn Everett Baker (1899-1964) worked together Tri Motor Company, a used car dealership and repair garage. Baker became the President of Tri Motor, and oversaw sales while Crounse was vice-President and oversaw the garage. The year of 1935 started a deadly year as the company clashed with union workers and mechanics. January of 1935 saw 7 people get shot, 3 of them by Avery Crounse. Lynn Baker was shot through the hand. When none of that subdued the strikers, Crounse and Baker were beaten by the crowd until police intervention.
Edward C. Streater was a son of a lumberman. Streater headed a chain of lumberyards that expanded to kitchen cabinets in the late 1920s. Looking to diversify, Streater bought a 4-room schoolhouse used to make ammunition boxes and converted it to manufacture toys (picture of the schoolhouse is at the end of this blog). The venture wasn’t successful - the designs were bulky, made of wood, and would easily break. Quite a difference from the cast iron steel toys that dominated hardware stores the first part of the 20th century.
Giving up after a disappointing exhibit at the American Toy Fair, Streater sold the schoolhouse to Lynne Baker and Avery Crounse, who were perhaps looking for less-confrontational business ventures. The duo brought on Alvin F. Tesch (1915-2000), a pressed metal craftsman, and the trio worked to produce tie racks, garden tools, and other pressed metalworks starting in 1946 under the name Mound Metalcraft.
Alvin Tesch started scoping out Streater’s discarded toy designs to see if he could transform into something more durable. Streater’s toy designer, Charles M. Groschen (1921-2012) joined Mound Metalcraft and in less than a year, Streater's toys had been redesigned using 20-gauge automotive metal instead of wood. Lynn and Avery had one major design goal - the toys had to be more detailed like the cars they sold at Tri Motor Company, complete with working moving parts, and at 1:18 scale. The toys were small enough for a child to carry, but large enough to relate to the real world.
The toys 1947 saw were the Model 100 Steam Shovel, reworked from Groschen and Streater’s original design, followed by Model 150 Crane and Claw - all put together in the small schoolhouse with only 6 employees. They were released under the name “Tonka” partially for Lake Minnetonka, but also “tanka” meaning “big” or “great” in the Dakota Sioux language. Their logo was designed by local Mound designer Erling W. Eklof who incorporated water for the lake and 3 birds representing the three original founders. Mound Metalcraft produced 37,000 TONKA metal steam shovels and canes in their first year.
In 1949, Mound Metalcraft introduced the Tonka dump truck to the post-WW2 generation. What was once just a basement operation in a 4-room schoolhouse turned into a multi-building factory with 215 employees working in 3 shifts to complete orders. Going into 1955, Tonka had 17 lines of vehicles, and it was apparent that tie racks and garden tools was no longer in the future, and the company officially changed it’s name to Tonka Toys Inc.
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Alvin Tesch and Avery Crounse left the company in 1952 when the board of directors declined a rather sweet deal from Tennessee to move manufacturing to the state. Charles Groschen left in 1957 and moved to McAllen, Texas. Lynn Baker moved to Coral Gables in mid-1950s for his health, finally leaving the company officially in 1961. Under new management, Tonka released its signature truck, Tonka Mighty Dump, in 1964.
In 1983, the factory in Mound officially closed for cheaper labor and production in El Paso, Texas and neighboring Juarez, Mexico. Tonka was acquired by Hasbro in 1991.
Thanks to the Westonka Historical Society video library, "Roundhouse Rodney" played by Donald Lynn Dwyer (1927-1976) takes a tour of the Mound, Minnesota Tonka Toy factory in 1975. There are a few commercials from the 1970s as well, including the two famous elephant commercials.
Below is a picture of the original schoolhouse, closed in the early 1920s. It was used to make ammunition boxes before Edward C. Streater purchased it.