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Making toys, smiles in retirement

By Patricia Buschette

Bruce Larson’s first project working with wood was the cedar chest he made as a senior at Atwater High School. “That got me interested in woodworking,” he said. When it was done, his mother asked about it and Bruce replied, “I am going to give it to Shirley.” This did not please his mother.

Immediately after high school, Bruce Larson left for service in the US Army, and was stationed in Korea. The fighting was over and his service was as a cook. The mess hall was in a Quonset, but for one year, he lived in a tent. Contributed photo

After graduating from Atwater High School in 1954, he and Shirley were engaged. Bruce volunteered for the U.S. Amy, that meant just a two-year term of service, and was stationed in Korea. “By that time, the fighting was done, and I was stationed two miles from the DMZ where I was a cook. I lived in a tent for a year – there were Quonset buildings for the motor pool and the mess hall, but we lived in tents!”

He served two years in the Army, and in 1957, he married his high school sweetheart Shirley Nelson, and the cedar chest was now in their home!

“When I returned, I went to work for the local hardware store, Holm Brothers Hardware in Atwater. They sold and installed floor covering, hardware, machinery, furniture, and other supplies. I was trained for installation of floor covering of all kinds. Later, I was put in charge of work crews, and selling of plumbing and heating supplies.”

“I worked for 28 years for Holm Brothers until they called it quits.” While he had other job opportunities, he bought out Holm Bros., which became known as Larson Hardware. He dropped the machinery and furniture business, resulting in a hardware store with a flooring department. Bruce and Shirley Larson, along with one employee, kept the business going.

“After hours, I did measuring for the installation of carpeting and other floor materials,” he said. “We worked six days a week for 16 years; 7:00 in the morning to 8:00 at night.”

Bruce Larson with some of his creations, which are displayed around his home in Atwater -- on the edge of a staircase, around the fireplace, and on tables. Photo by Patricia Buschette

“It was well worth it,” he said. The floor covering department was good for us.” The Larsons operated the hardware store out of a rented building, and on Jan. 1, 2001, they sold the business.

Did Bruce miss the business? “I didn’t miss the work, but I missed the people,” he said.

“It was then I started making toys.”

“My first toys didn’t have a lot of technical stuff in them,” he said as he pointed to a side dump gravel truck. The first recipients of his toys were grandchildren, all of whom live in Atwater.

“Toys and Joys,” a company out of the State of Washington, makes available plans and patterns that include full-size drawings for the construction of detailed wood models and toys. The plans also provide wheels, pegs, and dowels. Bruce fashions the rest of each toy.

A military truck known as a “deuce and a half,” required a canvas cover. He elicited the help of a local seamstress, and an impressive cover was sewn to add to the truck’s authenticity.

The deuce-and-a-half was a tactical cargo truck that could carry 2 ½ tons of materials on-road or off-road in all weather. The truck was the second only to the Jeep in wartime vehicle production. Photo by Patricia Buschette

The types of toys he makes are not limited to and include road construction, military trucks, golf carts, skid steers, excavators, gravity trucks, sugar beet trucks, an excavator with semi, fire trucks with ladders, farm tractors, and picture and puzzle frames. A 1934 Chevrolet coupe is an impressive vintage car that is part of his collection. His favorite is the golf cart.

In addition to making toys, Bruce has made contributions to the community life of Atwater. He was on the board for the Atwater Area Help for Seniors group for 15 years. The organization is a member of the Living at Home Network that offers services for seniors living in the area. He has donated several golf carts for the Atwater Area Help for Seniors golf tournament.

At an Atwater Area Help for Seniors “Dancing with Stars” event, he donated a 560 Farmall tractor that sold for $200.

Bruce’s favorite effort is a golf cart. He has made many that have been donated to organizations for fundraising projects.

Bruce has been an integral part of the Island Pine Golf Course located on the southwest edge of Atwater. It was built in 1995, and was operated under different ownerships. The course fell on hard times, and in 2004, he and seven other individuals in Atwater bought the golf course.

It did well for a number of years, but additional cash was required, and letters were sent out to the community to raise money. A $10,000 minimum investment was requested. $215,000 was raised, and 12 more members were added to the investor group. The course put up a storage shed and updated equipment.

“It is now doing quite well and making good money,” Bruce said. “There is a men’s and women’s league night, and a Monday night scramble.” In addition, the course hosts an alumni banquet for the high school.

Bruce still enjoys golfing in a league, and on other occasions, but has now gifted his shares to his grandsons.

Not all of his wood making enterprises are toys. In 2019, he helped build crosses for Harrison Community Presbyterian Church’s Lenten worship. Photo by Patricia Buschette

Bruce’s repertoire is not limited to toys, and he often contributes to community efforts such as helping to create Thanksgiving turkeys for his church. In 2019, he helped build crosses to be used for a Lenten service at Harrison Community Presbyterian Church. Each family received a wooden cross. Each weekend, a symbol was added to the cross. At the end of lent, each family would have a cross that could be used each year to tell the story of Good Friday; 30 pieces of silver in a cloth bag; a purple robe, the crown of thorns, the whip, the dice, the cup, and the nail.

Bruce’s workshop is in his garage in a 16’ x 18’ heated room. “I started preparing for this when I was in the store,” he explained.

“I bought all the tools, the band saw, miter saw, table saw, router, drill press, jointer planer, belt sander, a 1” belt sander and 4” belt sander,” anticipating retirement. It is here where the magic takes place. “All toys are wood and glue,” he explained. “There are no nails or screws involved.”

When asked how many toys Bruce has made, he suggested 40 – 50. After a review of the various toys gifted, donated, and found throughout his house, that is clearly a very conservative estimate. He has maintained an album of the items he has crafted over the years.

He has sent a military vehicle, a 2 ½ ton military beast commonly referred to as a “deuce and a half” to Texas, carefully packing it for shipping.

The magic happens in Bruce’s workshop in a 16 x 18 heated room of his garage. He has every kind of equipment necessary to create his woodworking projects. Photo by Patricia Buschette

Bruce’s wife Shirley died in March 2021, two months shy of 64 years of marriage. Bruce remains self-sufficient in his comfortable and pleasant home in Atwater. His daughter and son-in-law, and three grandchildren, also live in Atwater. His son-in-law and grandson operate an electrical business in the community.

Weekday mornings are an important part of Bruce’s routine as he gathers with a number of friends at his son-in-law’s electric shop for coffee. The group has a fund set aside, and when coffee expenses are paid, the electric shop is reimbursed for usage of the building.

Bruce has been making toys for over 20 years. This rewarding hobby and his active role in the community show no signs of slowing down.

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