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Made in America: Oglethorpe, with help from his friends, has become a true toy soldier

ROCKWELL — Terry Oglethorpe is a shade-tree toymaker.

On his Iredell County farm near the Rowan County line, Oglethorpe fashions wooden toys he ends up giving away by the hundreds.

Correction: Make that by the thousands. In the past six years, the retired horticulturist has made more than 6,000 cars, trucks, helicopters, trailers, trains, tractors, tankers and other homemade toys with wheels.

Most of the toys were given to Toys for Tots or local ministry programs. On occasion, special-population classes have sold them as a way to raise money or the Troutman Public Library has used them in a children’s reading program.

Oglethorpe is a shade-tree toymaker because he has gotten into the habit of making his toys outside. Not in the carport or garage. Not in a workshop. Not on the porch.

He chooses instead to work in his backyard next to a garden shed that holds his band saw. Out in the yard, the light is good, there’s plenty of elbow room, and the wood shavings and sawdust can fly in the wind.

Oglethorpe and his wife, Mary, drove their Subaru to Powles Staton Funeral Home in Rockwell on Tuesday to deliver more than 200 of his toys, all painted and packed neatly in boxes.

The Oglethorpes were donating them to the funeral home’s annual Operation Toy Soldier program.

Operation Toy Soldier provides new toys to the N.C. National Guard’s Family Readiness Program, which then presents them as gifts to the children of National Guard soldiers at Christmas.

Terry and Mary plan to deliver an additional 200 to 300 toys to the funeral home when they’re ready.

Russ Roakes, a funeral director, says Operation Toy Soldier has collected roughly 10,000 toys for National Guard kids over the past three years. The funeral home basement already has about 2,000 unwrapped toys for this coming Christmas.

“It looks like the warehouse of Walmart’s toy store by December,” Roakes said Tuesday.

Oglethorpe’s toys are made mostly from scrap 2-by-4s and plywood that otherwise would be thrown away. He pretty much scavenges or receives as donations everything that goes into making his creations, except the wheels.

“Don’t throw it away,” he tells people. “I can use it. … I’m a great scavenger.”

Oglethorpe has worn out a couple of drill presses and bandsaw blades. Many of the toy vehicles he makes can carry or pull other things he builds. The designs he comes up with are his.

“I really think the man upstairs or the Holy Spirit is writing on my brain,” he said.

Terry and Mary Oglethorpe are quick to credit many others who help with the painting, lettering and decorating of Terry’s wooden toys. Those folks include fellow Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church members Gary and Frankie Freeze, Sybil LaVan, Elizabeth and Earl Bowers, and the women’s group at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church.

Mary remembers how impressed the couple were the first time they saw what the decorating crews could do.

“When we started getting these back,” she said, “we went, ‘Wow!'”

The Oglethorpes also appreciate Irene Miller and Lucille Carter for giving Terry a lot of early ideas and encouragement.

Terry recalled a day before all this toy stuff started when he was shopping at Walgreens in Statesville and noticed a Toys for Tots barrel.

Shopping elsewhere in the store, he picked up a couple of packages of children’s wooden blocks to deposit with Toys for Tots, until he noticed there was mold on the blocks.

“I said, ‘I can do better than this,'” Terry said.

He bought a band saw for $129 and started cutting wood blocks for children and using paste-on letters. To raise money, a special-education class began selling them and also some birdhouses Terry had made.

Soon he was branching out into toys and also had a woodworking class at Troutman Library — for ages 3 to 87, he said.

Mary reports that her husband’s toys are American-made, sturdy, and both kid- and Terry-tested. “We have some neighborhood boys who love to play with them, loading and unloading stuff,” she said.

Terry added, “I test each model — it has to roll so many feet.”

Mary said the test involves Terry measuring out a distance on the kitchen floor or one of their wooden floors and establishing the line his toys have to reach with a piece of masking tape.

“Each one of these will roll good,” Oglethorpe said of those he delivered Tuesday, “and they’re very articulated.”

Oglethorpe served in the Air Force and Air National Guard. He is a member of the Iredell County Veterans Honor Guard, and he heard about Powles Staton’s Operation Toy Soldier while performing Honor Guard duties at Salisbury National Cemetery.

Roakes couldn’t hide his appreciation Tuesday for Oglethorpe’s donation.

“I’m very excited about this,” he told Terry. “I’ve been excited since you called me.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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