Central Pa. man collects, refurbishes hundreds of tin toys


As happy as Geppetto must have been creating dolls and puppets in his toy shop, that’s how excited Don Raker is in his own Sunbury workroom, restoring toys and surrounded by hundreds more.

It started with a simple desire to share his love of toys.

“I always liked Matchbox,” Don said.

He bought some Matchbox cars for his kids when they were young then started collecting in earnest for his grandson, Hunter Raker.

“He’s been collecting my entire life,” said Hunter, 23.

Buses, cement trucks, racecars and dune buggies in ready-to-play condition line shelves and cabinets along Don’s basement walls. He found that old wristwatch display cases create perfectly sized, individual parking spaces for rows of the miniature cars and trucks, which he finds at flea markets, toy shows and in toy stores he visits while on vacation.

If Matchbox made it, Don probably has it.

“Through the years, his interests changed because he realized he had all the Matchbox toys he wanted,” Hunter said.

So Don eventually added Corgi, Dinky Toys and TootsieToys, as well as charming, vintage tin toys to his
collection. With their colorfully painted components and simple, wind-up mechanisms, the tin toys speak of a different era in childhood play.

“Today, toys are all on their iPads,” said Don’s wife, Cindy Raker.

The tin toys are labelled with dashing names like “Range Rider,” a daring cowboy that inches his way across the floor on his trusty horse; “Sky Ranger,” a blimp circling an air tower; and “G.I. Joe and his Jouncing Jeep,” which actually leans back on its rear tires to pop a wheelie.

Most of Don’s toys are in original condition, but he also enjoys restoring them.

“Sometimes you have to learn to overlook the flaws and just enjoy them because, if you restore them, they won’t be worth as much,” Don said. “But some of them are so bad that I take them and tear them apart.”

Among the tools in his workshop are paints, brushes, oils and glue. Desk drawers hold spare parts saved from dozens of projects, waiting to give toys new life.

“Sometimes he’ll take some that are terrible,” Cindy said, “and then he’ll fix it up and it’ll look wonderful.”

“It’s a great satisfaction to me, if I have a piece that looks like junk and I can take it apart and …” Don paused, as if looking at a rebuilt toy, and continued, “Hey, that looks good.”

Like any good collector, Don can tell stories behind some of his favorite pieces.

“A lot of times in a person’s life there’s something that happens to us once in a lifetime,” he said. “Well that’s what happened with some of these toys.”

G.I. Joe and his Jouncing Jeep was one such toy. An elderly woman from Don’s childhood neighborhood asked if he and Hunter would clean out her attic. To their surprise, they found some unique tin toys, including the G.I. Joe. The woman thanked Don and Hunter by telling them to choose any toy they wanted.

“I wanted the G.I. Joe, but I couldn’t take it from her,” Don said. Later, however, the woman and her daughter-in-law insisted he take it, and the G.I. Joe was his.

“It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said.

As for what he’ll add to his collection, Don remains open to whatever surprises life has in store for him.

“A lot of times it’s there but you don’t know it until you see it,” he said with a smile. “After you think you’ve seen them all and have all the different manufacturers, you see an object that just blows your mind.”


Tin toys: Trash or treasure?

Don Raker, of Sunbury, has dozens of tin toys in his collection, including some that came to him in pretty sad shape.

Sometimes he leaves them in their original condition so as not to affect their resale value. But if they’re really bad, he can’t resist a little patching, repairing, and repainting.

“He gets pathetic ones and then he fixes them up,” said Raker’s wife, Cindy Raker. “It ruins the value, but it’s a hobby for him.”

How valuable are tin toys? It all comes down to how badly someone else wants them.

According to “The Joe Report” (PatchesOf Pride.com), “G.I. Joe and his Jouncing Jeep” is “the first toy to EVER bear the name G.I. Joe.” Made in 1944, it featured a wide-eyed, bumbling sort of G.I. Joe as compared to the tough-guy action figure of the ’60s and ’70s.

“G.I. Joe and his Jouncing Jeep” is listed on eBay with an asking price of between $250 and $300 … a nice sum of money, but not exactly a fortune.

A vintage Chein tin duck listed on eBay has asking prices of between $12 and $151. “Lil Abner and his Dogpatch Band” tin toy wind-up is listed at $275 to $299. A rare “1929 Wolverine Zilotone Wind-Up Tin Musical Automaton Toy,” with a uniformed musician at a zylophone-like instrument, asks $349.99 even though it’s missing some keys and discs. And a very rare “Gunthermann Coupe Gordon Bennett German Tin Toy Race Car” is listed at a walloping $14,781.

So yes, if you have any of those toys, you can set the price high and maybe make a small bundle.

But most vintage tin toys on eBay — cars, tanks, clowns, cowboys, circus figures, etc. — sell for anywhere from 99 cents on up, with many in the $20 to $40 range. It makes sense that people who collect toys do so as much for the nostalgic aspect as for any monetary value.

Raker collects them not to sell but for their one-of-a-kind characteristics and their whimsical appearance, and he’s always on the lookout for more.

They might not add anything to his nest egg, but they do add a quirky, colorful touch to his home.