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FISHER-PRICE ENDS AN ERA IN EAST AURORA TOY MAKER HALTS PRODUCTION, IDLES LAST 225 WORKERS IN VILLAGE PLANT SITE TODAY

Since his retirement from Fisher-Price nine years ago, Joe Steinwachs has returned almost weekly to visit friends working at the East Aurora toy factory.

But today he couldn't bear going near the building, knowing that it would close forever at the end of the day.

Fisher-Price's headquarters will remain in the village where it was founded 60 years ago, but the toys that have brought joy to generations of children will be made elsewhere. And that's a sad turn of events for the 73-year-old Fisher-Pricer.

Severe financial problems have forced Fisher-Price to close its East Aurora factory, eliminating 450 jobs. Production lines have gradually been phased out with half of the work force leaving on May 19 and the remaining 225 people today.

Historians say the closing of the brick factory on Girard Avenue marks the end of an era. To Steinwachs, who spent about 40 years working at Fisher-Price, this is a time to remember the early years, when the company struggled to survive the Great Depression and World War II.

"I hate to see it close. I've spent a lifetime there," Steinwachs said Thursday.

He recalled the chats he used to have with the company's co-founder, Herman G. Fisher, and the sense of family among employees and managers.

"I really enjoyed working there. It was fun," the veteran employee said.

When Steinwachs joined Fisher-Price in 1936, the manufacturer was still in its infancy; housed in a small wooden building at 70 Church St. "That was the year profit-sharing started," he said. "I remember I got $10 in cash."

Steinwachs explained that Herman Fisher believed
his employees should share in any profits the company made. In later years, workers received little bags of silver dollars and a turkey.

Fisher-Price was launched in the depths of the Depression on Oct. 1, 1930 with an initial investment of $100,000. During the first year, about 15 people worked for the fledging business, making pull-toys out of ponderosa pine.

Earlier, Fisher had tried to buy All-Fair Toys & Games Inc. of Churchville, where he served as president and general manager. But when his buyout attempt was thwarted, he decided to start his own enterprise, according to "Fisher-Price 1931-1963: A Historical, Rarity, Value Guide" by John J. Murray and Bruce R. Fox.

As its brand name suggests, Fisher-Price was the creation of more than one person. In fact, in the beginning there was a triumvirate of Irving R. Price, the wealthy mayor of East Aurora and former executive with F.W. Woolworth & Co.; Helen M. Schelle, owner of a toy store in Binghamton, and Herman Fisher.

"Herm (Fisher) ran the company and the other two were behind the scenes," said Fox, national accounts manager for the toymaker and co-author of a Fisher-Price book. "Fisher was very devoted to the company, working long hours at it," he said.

Fisher's son, John B. Fisher, who spent his childhood in the Fisher-Price factory, said his father didn't spend a lot of time behind a desk. Herman Fisher preferred to be near the assembly line, supervising employees and checking to make sure that every toy was safe and would delight children.

"Dad knew the customers well," John Fisher said. "He was stubborn about making something that was quality; that had play value and was strong."

For example, product designers quickly learned that Herman Fisher wouldn't tolerate fragile toys. He used to test prototypes by rolling them off the top of his desk. If the sample toy broke, it went back to the drawing board rather than into production, John Fisher said.

"In an industry that has a fast-buck element with lots of shoddy merchandise out there, people have respect for a company that has produced quality for years," he added.

The unique style of Fisher-Price toys made them an instant hit when they debuted at the 1931 American International Toy Fair in New York City, said Fox, the company historian.

Moreover, a toy made by Fisher-Price so captivated two angry ambassadors in 1933 that it was credited with defusing an international incident between the United States and Chile, according to news reports.

The American ambassador to Chile apparently used a "Go'N Back Jumbo" toy to break the ice at a tension-filled meeting between U.S. industrialists and Chilean officials. The government of Chile had just taken over a U.S.-owned nitrate company, Fox said.

He also recalled that Fisher-Price almost changed its name a year after it was started.

Herman Fisher seriously considered buying out Irving Price's interest in the company and renaming it the Fisher Toy Co. However, after discussions with other investors, Fisher dropped the idea, Fox said.

"It's intriguing to think that the company might have had a different name. And who knows if it would have survived in those early years without Price's financial backing," the company historian said.

Several observers recalled Fisher's generosity. He wasn't above loaning money to financially strapped employees and letting local families heat their homes with wood scraps from the factory, said Steinwachs, who rose from the shop floor to become production superintendent at the East Aurora factory.

"He had his faults, but to me the man was a saint," the veteran employee added.

Until 1962, when Fisher-Price opened a second factory in Holland to make plastic toy parts, the company was strictly an East Aurora operation. Fisher-Price didn't move from its original factory on Church Street to the Girard Avenue facility until 1951.

Through the years, a close relationship developed between the business and the community, which calls itself Toy Town, U.S.A. "Everybody felt like they belonged to us and we belonged to them," said an elderly village resident, who asked not to be identified.

Four years ago, the local chamber of commerce launched Toyfest, an annual celebration recognizing East Aurora's heritage of toymaking. In fact, the last toy made at the Girard Avenue factory is a Toyfest souvenir.

Historians say Fisher-Price slowly outgrew Western New York, expanding from a business with annual sales of $40 million to more than $844 million in fiscal 1989.

Since the Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co. bought out Herman Fisher in 1969, the company has become the world's largest manufacturer of infant and preschool toys with 10,000 employees worldwide. After today, the Medina and Holland factories will be the only local Fisher-Price manufacturing sites.

Without Quaker Oats' deep pockets, Fisher-Price wouldn't have become the king of the children's playroom, said retiree Steinwachs. He expressed confidence that the company will rebound from a $44.5 million loss in fiscal 1990.

When asked what he would remember about the East Aurora factory, Steinwachs said: "The people and the toys. We liked what we were doing and we made the best toys in the market."

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