The year's first inventory, around 37,000 toys, sold out in a matter of months.
Fittingly enough for an operation that makes dump trucks, Tonka came into being in a place called Mound. Back in 1946, that company was Mound Metalcraft Inc., set up by three men-Lynn Everett Baker, Avery F. Crounse, and Alvin F. Tesch-operating from the basement of a schoolhouse in the aforementioned suburb of Minneapolis, Minn.
At first the company made gardening tools for grown-ups and, oddly, a metal tie rack. Then Edward C. Streater came to visit in 1947. Streater had designs for toys made from steel and needed a company to produce them. He had a name for them too: Tonka, which means "large" or "great" in Sioux. Hence the large, great Lake Minnetonka nearby. The original Tonka logo was created by another Mound resident: Erling W. Eklof. It took him three days to design.
The first toy to be made was the Tonka #100 steam shovel and #150 Crane and Clam. These were soon followed by dump trucks, wreckers, semis, and box vans. The first year's inventory, around 37,000 toys, sold out in a matter of months. One of the great American toys had been born. Tonka quickly became a recognized brand and Mound Metalcraft changed its name to Tonka Toys, Inc. on the first day of 1956.
From 1964 onward came the Mighty line, which spawned the Mighty Dump truck, the company's all-time best seller and virtually the same today as it was then. Other Mighty items include the Shovel, Car Carrier, Bulldozer, Wrecker, and Loadmaster.
Manufacturing Tonka toys now involves some pretty mighty numbers. Every year, around 5.1 million pounds of sheet metal and more than 120,000 pounds of paint are used to produce the current range of 30 trucks. The first factory used mass production techniques like those of real car companies and could turn out as many as 400,000 units a week.
It seems the National Toy Hall of Fame (in Rochester, New York) wanted to make sure Tonka toys weren't faddish, flash-in-the-pan playthings and therefore waited until March 28, 2001 and sales had reached over 250 million before inducting everyone's favorite childhood truck brand, stating that it had now "achieved longevity and national significance in the world of play and imagination."
Nowadays there are Tonka owners clubs and, despite the many trucks made and their virtual indestructibility, a lively collectors market. At the time of writing, there were 354 eBay entries under vintage Tonka toys. One item, a ramp hoist truck from the 1960s, was listed at $285 with 22 bids and two days to go. Or how about a complete trailer fleet set in its original box for $1,600?
Tonka aficionados might one day like to make the trip to Winifred, Mont. A staunch Republican stronghold with a population of 150 or so, Winifred does have another distinction-housing what may be the largest collection of Tonka toys in the world (3,000 according to the Winifred Museum). Perhaps the collection came about because the town didn't want commie pinko liberal kids on the coasts playing with something so tough and American as Tonka trucks. Them kids got Barbie and Ken.