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  • Ednold

My Other Brother 8/8/22

Somewhere on a college campus in Forest Grove, Oregon there is a plaque with my name on it. It used to hang in the basement of Walter Hall, but that was a long time ago and I’m not sure where it might be now. That’s right; the name Ednold is engraved on a plaque. At our annual end-of-year ceremony I was named the Best Athlete of Gamma Sigma fraternity for that year. Don’t ask what year. Like I said, it was a long time ago. I’m pretty sure it was my reward for being the only one stupid enough (and un-sober enough) to ignore the NO TRESPASSING sign and climb the fence in the middle of the night to access the grassy slope above the Vista Ridge Tunnels and lower our big sign and secure it at a height visible to the inbound traffic fifty feet below.

Given the average strength, coordination, and agility of my Gamma Sig brothers, being named the best athlete of that lot was kind of like being crowned Miss North Dakota: It was nice, but did not necessarily signify a great achievement. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had any achievements that I would classify as great, but I have had brushes with people who have, and the really significant thing about having my name on that plaque is the company it put me in. Gamma Sigma began as a literary society in 1863 (and yes, it is the oldest fraternity west of the Mississippi, in case you were wondering). That means the honor of Best Athlete has been bestowed 159 times, and at least one of those other guys with his name on that plaque really did do great things, and my name is on that plaque with his. This story is about that other guy.

Like me, Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born in Salem. Unlike me, it was in 1884. Alf’s father, Frank, had come to Oregon in 1870 and by the time Alf was born he was a banker in Salem. In 1892 the family moved to Moscow, Idaho. As a child, Alf was crazy about magic, and spent a lot of time perfecting his magician skills. It was something that continued to interest him throughout his entire lifetime, but as he grew older he also became interested in physical fitness and sports. He enjoyed attending track meets at Willamette University and was especially intrigued by the pole vaulters. After his family had moved to Moscow he set up his own pole vaulting pit at home. At that time, the poles had spikes on one end that the vaulter would stick in the ground as he took off. Of course, Alf didn’t have a spiked pole, so he dug a little hole and built himself a box where he would plant the pole each time to keep it from slipping. It was his first invention, and no modern vaulter has competed without using an updated version of Alf’s plant box.

A.C. "Gillie" Gilbert

As most good athletes do in this part of the country, Alf, or “Gillie”, as he was known, ended up going to college in Forest Grove. Even at that time, Pacific University was known for producing two things: First-rate opera singers and top-notch athletes. As far as I know, Gillie was not much of a singer, but by the time he was 18 he was known as one of the best athletes around. He was the captain of both the football and track teams and was the Northwest wrestling champion. He was described by the Oregonian as “the best quarterback to be found in Oregon”. He also set the world record for the most chin-ups (40), and in 1902 he set a world record in an event known as the “long dive”. It was like the long jump only you had to land head-first. I just can’t imagine why that didn’t become more popular.

While spending a summer with the gymnastics team in New York, Gillie was recruited by Yale University, and transferred there in 1905. He graduated a few years later with a degree in medicine, but not before becoming a national champion and world record holder in the pole vault. He then vaulted his way to a gold medal at the London Olympics of 1908.

I tried pole vaulting once when I was a freshman in high school. That was the day my dreams of someday becoming a professional stripper were dashed. I just never felt comfortable being several feet in the air, upside down, hanging onto a pole. I knew right then I’d have to lower my sights a little and find something else to do with my life, a search that continues to this day. But Gillie seemed to enjoy that feeling and also had no aspirations of becoming a stripper, making him a perfect candidate for pole vaulting stardom. Though he graduated with that medical degree, Gillie had no intention of ever practicing medicine. At the time, the degree was one of the requirements that would allow him to do what he really wanted to do: Become a college athletic director. Before that plan got off the ground, though, his life took a different turn.

Gillie had worked his way through school by continuing to perform magic in his spare time, making increasing amounts of money for his shows. Shortly after graduation he entered into a partnership in a company that made and sold magic tricks, and for a few years he was content to manufacture and market tricks to aspiring magicians. Then one day, during a train ride to New York City, he was inspired to develop something different. As the train rolled through the suburbs and into the city, Gillie took note of all the construction going on, especially the huge girders being hoisted into place as the infrastructure of the metropolis was taking shape. Gillie wasn’t a boy anymore, but he was certain that if he was, he would love a chance to use the scaled-down elements of all this construction to build his own buildings, cranes, cars, railroads, and everything else he was seeing around him.

By 1912 A.C.Gilbert had assembled a prototype for his Erector set. Unfortunately, his partners weren’t quite as excited about it as he was. They were in the magic business and had no interest in being in the Erector business. The story is a little muddied as to whether his partner willingly sold out or if A.C.’s father forced him out, but one way or another A.C. Gilbert and his dad ended up the sole stockholders in the Mysto Manufacturing Company, and production of the first Erector sets began. By 1913 they were on store shelves everywhere.

Just a few years later, during World War I, the federal government asked the country’s toymakers to convert their factories to make goods for the war effort. Gilbert was a patriotic guy, but he believed he could contribute best by continuing to make toys. He was convinced that toys were necessary not only to maintain morale at home, but to produce young people who had the benefits of exploratory learning. When the Council of National Defense met with the Toy Manufacturers of America in September of 1918, the proposal on the table was for all toy sales to be halted for the 1918 holiday season. Gilbert gave a short speech in which he said “America is the home of toys that educate as well as amuse, that visualize to the boy his future occupations, that start him on the road to construction and not destruction, that as fully as public schools or Boy Scout systems, exert the sort of influences that go to form right ideals and solid American character”. Gilbert had also brought along samples of all of his latest toys, and by the end of the meeting the councilmen were all scattered around the room playing with them. In the end the Council relented. There would be no toy ban for the upcoming Christmas season.

As it turned out, the war was over before Christmas anyway. But the factories had not been converted, and nobody missed out on any toys when the big day came. For that, A.C. Gilbert was forever known as “the man who saved Christmas”, which probably didn’t hurt his business any. In 2002 CBS made a movie about him called “The Man Who Saved Christmas”, with Jason Alexander in the starring role. When I look at George Costanza I don’t think former Olympic pole vault champion, but apparently it made sense to someone.

The Mysto Manufacturing Company soon became the A.C. Gilbert Company and they were wildly successful for many years. They made increasingly large and elaborate Erector sets as well as chemistry sets, microscopes, build-your-own radio kits, and other toys intended to educate as they amused. Perhaps their most ambitious product was the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. Literature included with the set explained that "All radioactive materials included with the Atomic Energy Lab have been certified as completely safe….”. It actually was a lot safer than it sounds, but the relatively expensive set wasn’t popular and was discontinued after just a couple of years on the market in the early 50’s.

As you may imagine, A.C. Gilbert became incredibly wealthy selling all of those toys. He built his family an estate outside of New Haven, Connecticut, where his factory was located, and he built himself a hunting lodge not too far away. It was kind of an extreme version of a man-cave where he could go to shoot animals, catch fish out of his lake, and generally get away from people for a while. He was kind of a strange man, as most super-successful people seem to be. He appeared to have cared more about his business than his family, and was aloof with his own wife, children and grand-children, while he knew each of his 2,000 employees by name. He never lost his competitiveness and in later years became a big game hunter, traveling the world shooting bears, elk, and other big animals that he could stuff and have mounted in his lodge. It’s a little weird to me that someone who spent their whole life making toys would spend their free time killing things, but I guess everyone needs a hobby.

A.C, Gilbert has been credited with preparing three or four generations of children for careers in construction, chemistry, and other fields that became more attainable to young students after exposure to his toys. But by the mid-50’s, just as he was getting ready to retire and appoint his son as president of the company, things were changing. The coolness factor was becoming important, and Gilbert’s toys were a little on the nerdy side. In post-war culture it eventually became less cool to spend your money on an Erector set than sharp clothes and the newest 45’s. Gilbert’s son, A.C. Jr., did his best for a few years, but he died of a brain tumor in 1964 and the new leadership couldn’t make the company profitable either. Ironically, the youth culture of the late 50’s and 60’s brought tough times for the A.C. Gilbert Company, and by 1967 they were out of business.

I was too young to get in on the Erector set craze, and it’s probably just as well. I do remember Tinker Toys when I was little, and Lincoln Logs, and Legos. They were easy enough. And if I’d had an Erector set I may have been able to build something, but it wouldn’t have been the things that I was supposed to make. A bridge? A building? No way! I would have made some type of torture device for my G.I.Joe to use on his enemies. Or a motorized contraption that would automatically poke my little sister in the head. I was more interested in running around, throwing and catching things than designing new construction projects. I don’t think I was ever mature enough to get the full benefits of Mr. Gilbert’s toys, and when he died in 1961 it was probably because he could foresee a whole generation of kids like me on the way.

A.C. Gilbert has not been completely forgotten though, and in 1989 the Gilbert House Childrens’ Museum (also known as A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village) opened in Salem, dedicated to learning through exploration. I knew I couldn’t write this story without visiting the Village, but they have a strict rule that all adults must be accompanied by a child. I understand they don’t want creepy old men at the Childrens’ Museum, but it put me in the uncomfortable position of needing to kidnap a child and force them to take me there. So, I washed up my old van, grabbed a bucket of candy, and prepared for a day of trolling the streets. No, I didn’t. Geez Louise. That was a joke. Am I the only one who thinks it’s unfair that an old person can’t get in without a kid? Anyway, the van wasn’t necessary because I have a grandson who was more than willing to go and let me tag along.

So, little Ednie got to have fun with his little friends, running himself ragged climbing up and sliding down the tower that also happens to be the world’s largest Erector creation. At Ednie’s insistence, I did climb up and go down that slide once myself, and I may have made a few giant bubbles in the bubble room too. I hope that wasn’t against the rules; I couldn’t help myself. And I also got to spend some time in the little museum area where several of the Gilbert Company’s old offerings are on display. They’re all behind glass and you can’t touch them, but it’s easy to see how curious boys would have been attracted to them, especially 80 or 90 years ago. It was probably the only visit I’ll ever make to Gilbert’s Discovery Village, but for anyone with small children I highly recommend it.

So, that’s the story of my fraternal brother. We were both born in the same town. We both attended the same university and received the same honor from the same fraternity. We both left without graduating. If the stupid Olympic Committee hadn’t been so reluctant to make tetherball an Olympic sport we would both have won Olympic gold medals. His family doesn’t own a company that sells millions of dollars worth of toys each year, and neither does mine. It’s just downright eerie when you think about all the similarities. So why, you may ask, does A.C. Gilbert have a dorm at Pacific University named for him and I don’t? Excellent question. One I ask myself all the time.

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