Tonka Toys: How a MN company used power of play to dig the foundation of global success story

Almost every nook and cranny of Mitch Elvebak's basement in Waconia is filled with models of his favorite toy. He has more than 700 Tonka Toys of all shapes and sizes, but his considerable collection is really a time machine.

"Just walking in and just seeing all the toys on the wall, this makes me feel young," said Elvebak.

Elvebak got his first Tonka Truck when he was just 9 years old and growing up in southern Minnesota. He says the toy's local origins hit close to home.

"The toy was made here in Minnesota and that's the toy I saw on the shelf as a kid. Those are the things that I was drawn to and now I just kind of, I like that Minnesota connection as I'm collecting things," said Elvebak.

A similar collection of Tonka Toys is the most popular attraction at the Westonka Museum.

"I think we have one of the most diverse collections of Tonka Toys in the Midwest definitely," said Jeff Magnusen of the Lake Minnetonka Historical Society.

Last August, the historical society expanded the display to help preserve the company's history for future generations.

"Because Tonka was such an important part of the history of Mound, it made sense that we should have part of our museum devoted to the Tonka Toy," said Magnusen.

Tonka Toys was started in an old school house as Mound Metalcraft in 1946 by Lynn Baker, Avery Crounse and Alvin Tesch.

Their first product was a tie rack, but they soon switched to metal toy trucks after miniature versions of a steam shovel and crane they tried out proved popular.

"They timed it right. They started offering these toys, marketing them to the families that were moving to the suburbs and all the children that were being born with the baby boom generation starting right after the war. So they had kind of a built-in growing market from the get go," said Magnusen.

With a logo featuring the name and waves of nearby Lake Minnetonka, the company went on to produce small-scale versions of everything from pickup trucks and fire engines to Winnebagos and their biggest hit, the Mighty Dump Truck, which continues to be its best-seller.

With a reputation for durability and realism, at its peak, Tonka was one of the top toy makers in the world, with 2,000 employees working out of a building a third of a mile long pumping out 8 million toys a year.

"They were building more trucks than any of the three big carmakers at that time. And we had a sign coming into the city where we were the trucking capital of the world. But they were toy trucks," said Magnusen.

In its later years in Minnesota, the company tried to diversify by introducing products like Pound Puppies and Go Bots.

But Tonka Toys eventually moved its manufacturing to Texas and Mexico to cut costs and its headquarters in Minnesota closed after the company was bought by Hasbro in the early 90s.

"For many years, during its tenure here in Mound, it was the major employer, not only for Mound but the surrounding community. So we had quite a few people coming into the town, which meant a lot to the local economy," said Magnusen.

For Elvebak, Tonka Toys left an indelible mark on his childhood, just like the company did on Mound, as one of the most iconic businesses to ever come out of Minnesota.

"You have to be able to remember your past and the kind of things that can just help you think about what it was like when you were younger. I think everybody needs something like that. Something to kind of keep you youthful and Tonka Toys does that for me," said Elvebak.