When thinking about classic childhood toys from generations ago, what comes to mind? Solid wood blocks, wooden animal figures and classic trucks and trains being firmly grasped in a child’s hand? LARK Toys in Kellogg, Minnesota is a company that enjoys creating handmade, heirloom wooden toys to last a lifetime and be passed down to future generations. Each Lark Toys is cut out, sanded, stained and assembled by hand.
According to Kathy Hume Gray, co-owner of LARK Toys, the company has been evolving since the mid 1980s, when a couple of teachers began making wooden pull toys for their children, for art fairs, and then shipping them across the country to toy stores.
“People in the community wanted to buy the toys, so a small retail outlet was opened, to which other toys, gifts, and books were added. The teachers decided that they wanted to make the biggest toy they could imagine. So over a nine-year period, they created a hand-carved wooden carousel,” Hume Gray says.
LARK Toys officially began operations in 1997, and this year will be the 25th anniversary of the LARK Carousel. More additions were made over the years, including an 18-hole miniature golf course, a candy store, a Korean pot-bellied pig, and a café.
“When the original owners’ children were grown, they wanted to sell the business to another family, and our family happened to be ‘on deck’ at the right time,” Hume Gray says. Today’s owners are mother and father (Kathy and Ron), their grown daughter and son-in-law (Miranda and Scott) who decided they wanted to go into business together.
“Our daughter survived a near fatal incident in the birth of her first child, and when she and our granddaughter came through it, we had a changed view of what is important in life. 2022 is our fifteenth year at LARK Toys,” Hume Gray says. “We have continued manufacturing wooden toys on site; we’ve refined an antique toy museum; we’ve added fudge that we make ourselves; we added llamas; we painted the whole place with bright colors; and we built an event center for yoga, Nia, business meetings, concerts, and even weddings. We are in process of adding displays and merchandise for a folk tale we’ve created that tells a unique story about the Driftless Region, in which we are located, and creatures that have emerged from the bluffs.”
Miranda and Kathy (daughter and mom) make buying decisions based on their desire to offer useful, high-quality, fun products.
“We try to avoid battery toys in favor of more open-ended ones. We sell our LARK-made toys here and we don’t wholesale them, so people come here for heirloom wooden toys or order them from our online store,” Hume Gay says. “We also sell a lot of terrific books, board games, puppets, and good plush.”
LARK Toys is fortunate to have visitors from across the country and around the world who are drawn to the classic, handmade toys. Though they are located in a rural area in Southern Minnesota, LARK Toys is 45 minutes from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and an hour or so from the Twin Cities, in the Bluff Country along the Mississippi River.
“People of all ages can find something to interest them, and we offer free carousel rides to anyone 90 and older,” Hume Gray says.
Family-owned and operated, LARK Toys is directed at every turn by conscious choices. There are many different ways to visit. Many come to see and ride the beautiful carousel. Some spend a time looking at the toys in the museum, remembering favorites and sharing them with children and grandchildren. A lot of people enjoy looking in the windows of the shop and watching toys being made, or take in a round of mini-golf, visit the llamas, or spend time in the bookstore, or try out toys and games at play stations, or eat, or buy fudge, or choose a unique gift.
“It is our intention to maintain a safe, uplifting place for all kinds of families and friends, including people who are differently abled,” Hume Gray says. “Sometimes people who come are facing challenging health issues, and most everyone can use a spirit lift and some happy moments. It is very important that we and our staff convey welcoming energy to visitors, and we stand behind the toys we make and others we sell. On the rare occasion when something breaks or doesn’t work, we replace it or offer a refund.”
A Team Effort
Currently, LARK Toys has two full-time toy makers on staff and many part-time workers. Retired people who still want to work enjoy being at the counters and running the carousel. In summer, the company welcomes college and high school students, who often stay with LARK Toys for several years and bring their own bright spirits during the company’s busiest season.
“Right now, like many in the retail/hospitality industry, we are seeking more workers,” Hume Gray says.
In addition to having a strong internal team, LARK Toys’ owners recognize that good sales representatives are great liaisons to vendors, and so the company relies on a select group who have proven their competence and reliability.
“It has been a challenging period for everyone, and we try to be flexible and as resilient as possible. We also do our very best to pay bills on time so that everyone can do their best,” Hume Gray says.
LARK Toys certainly has made a name for itself among toy aficionados, both regionally and nationally. In addition, the company is involved with the local chamber of commerce in order to sustain partnership relationships with other attractions and businesses in the area. And to stay on top of toy retailing trends and continue to be involved in the industry, LARK Toys is also a member of American Specialty Toy Retail Association (ASTRA).
“We also offers donations to schools and nonprofits in our area and beyond; we support the drama department at our local high school; we keep a business Facebook page; and we advertise in local newspapers and magazines,” Hume Gray says.
So what have the LARK Toys owners learned over the years as specialty retailers to help their company succeed?
“It’s important to find a niche that offers something of value, be clear about your intentions, connect with a good bank and accountant, and give it your best effort,” Hume Gray says. “When you make mistakes, fix them with humility and generosity, and keep learning. Have some fun along the way.”