Meadows of Dan is known for its folksy charm. That’s even moreso the case now that it’s home to a new toy and science museum, Toy Time. The space is largely the brainchild of Tom Wilson, who for years has found an outlet for his lively ingenuity and handwork ability by building wooden puzzles and toys.
“I’ve been making and giving them away for 40 years,” Wilson says. One of the first things you see when you enter the museum is an interactive exhibit of large-scale wooden folk toys. Wilson crafted its various pieces years ago, when he was employed as a builder of museum exhibits. He tackled the project on his own time, though, in his own wood shop. When complete, it spent several years traveling around the country to numerous museums.
“It’s easy to install,” he exclaims, “because it requires no electricity.” The exhibit, which includes examples of classic days-gone-by toys such as Jacob’s Ladder and The Amazing Acrobat, is emphatically hands-on, and visitors of all ages are encouraged to have fun with the toys.
“The grandparents love it as much as the kids do,” states Jon Clark, Wilson’s son-in-law, who together with his wife, Jill, help operate the museum.
Beyond the toy exhibit is a large space devoted to wooden puzzles, all of them brainteasers. Some are the sort where you are supposed to make a large, common shape, like a square, out of a variety of smaller shapes, which don’t at all look like they’ll fit together to create a square. Others are three-dimensional, such as the challenge to use a rod to lift a set of unconnected rods. Wilson tells everyone: “A puzzle is either impossible or simple. There’s no in-between.”
Past the puzzle section is the science part of the museum, which includes an exhibit showcasing the power of electromagnetism and another called invisible strings, where you play a synthesizer by waving your hands in a field of infrared-activating rays. Then there’s the device known as the air chair, a chair which you ride up and down, which is very popular when kids come on field trips. There’s also the Tot Spot, a play area for toddlers not old enough to appreciate the other parts of the museum.
Every exhibit in the museum was handmade by Wilson, who used to build exhibits for the science museum in Winston-Salem when it was known as SciWorks (today it goes by Kaleidium North). “Back then, I never saw people. Now that’s all I do,” he smiles. “We go around and help visitors with the toys and puzzles,” Clark adds. “We’ll get down on the floor to help them solve puzzles. We just have a good time interacting with guests.”
Though the bulk of the museum’s visitors are from this part of Virginia, its proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway attracts visitors from other states like Florida, Texas and Nebraska. The museum opened last spring, and its name, Toy Time, lured in some who thought it was a toy store.
“We didn’t start out with a gift shop,” Clark says, “but visitors wanted a souvenir of something handcrafted.” So Wilson went to his woodshop and got to work. Today, the gift shop includes more than 70 items. Some of them are made by other woodworkers, but Wilson makes the bulk of them. The offerings include small versions of his wooden puzzles, decorative wooden bottles (turned on a lathe) and a one-stringed musical instrument he calls the “Stringed Thing.”
“What he does is a dying art,” Clark believes “No one does it like he does.”
“I’m lucky,” Wilson responds. “My hobby has always been my job. And now, with the museum, I get to see people enjoying themselves, I really do. This is the best place in the world for a museum ~ at least I think it is.”
Text by Karl H. Kazaks | Photos by Tom Wallace