West Jordan’s Wooden Toymaker Reaches Milestone Amid New Financial Woes Following Newfound Fame
Jul 29, 2018, 9:47 PM | Updated: Jul 30, 2018, 12:23 am
WEST JORDAN, Utah — Alton Thacker’s factory fabricates nothing less than the secret of life.
“The secret of happiness is, make somebody else happy,” Thacker said.
For the past 16 years, Thacker and his team of relentless retirees have turned planks of wood into grins of gratitude for children all around the world.
“I was Santa Claus in Mexico, and I saw what a little toy could do for a little mind,” he said. “Mrs. Claus said ‘Hey, did you see that? We’ve got to make toys.'”
Thacker gave up his retirement and founded Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory, building wooden cars out of scraps, then handing them out for free to children across Utah and all around the world — always surrounded by a group of aging volunteers.
“I retired at age 63, and I got really tired of sitting at home,” Thacker said. “I learned quickly that if you want to be happy, you go do something to make somebody else happy. When I come in at nine, some of the guys have been here for two or three hours.”
Thacker may not be able to recall how many hours he and his friends have spent crafting their toy cars, but there’s one thing he keeps meticulous track of: the number of toys they’ve made.
He’s streamlined the process over the years, cranking out as many cars as he can.
“When we started, we were making toys with 11 cuts of the band saw to make one toy,” Thacker said. “Over the years, we said, ‘Hey. We’re never going to make it if we don’t cut them down to one cut, one toy.'”
All those years of work are finally paying off.
“We don’t want to get any dust on it,” Thacker said, while lifting a piece of glass from a toy car he’s especially proud of. “That’s our one millionth toy. And once we reached it, the guys all cheered and patted themselves on the back and said ‘It’ll only take us eight years to make the next million.'”
But the years haven’t been without their worries, as is the case with many nonprofits. In 2017, the man who’d been paying the rent on his factory space in West Jordan had to stop, leaving Tiny Tim’s in danger of shutting down. After a story aired on KSL TV, people stepped in to pick up the tab on his rent, even holding fundraisers in his honor.
Thacker’s bits of local publicity also led him to receive a small bit of international fame.
A few months ago, Thacker appeared on Mike Rowe’s “Returning the Favor” show on Facebook Watch, which has racked up nearly eight and a half million views. Arranged by the City of West Jordan, Mike Rowe’s producers, and Thacker’s granddaughter, he was surprised with a parade in his honor.
“The Mike Rowe show sent the word all over,” Thacker said.
Which sounds fantastic on the surface — but notoriety can breed complications, like more demand from people wanting to hand out his toys.
“A Mission President in the Philippine Islands told his missionaries to come and get a box of toys,” Thacker said. “I haven’t kept track of how many, but I’m guessing 2,000 have gone to the Philippine Islands since March.”
If there’s one thing Thacker knows, it’s numbers. And since his appearance with Rowe, the number of cars he’s been making has only gone up.
“We do our regular Primary Children’s, Shriners, The Road Home, Ronald McDonald House, Operation Give and Zimbabwe,” he said. “We do that, and all of the sudden, we’re having to do 2,500 more — and then the next month, 3,500 more. So we’re doing over 9,000 a month now.”
Which has left his once spacious warehouse more than a little cramped — and moving isn’t easy, considering many of his volunteers are elderly and can’t travel very far from the West Jordan area. Thacker’s main concern is about the well being of his helpers.
“We’ve got stuff piled on stuff,” he said. “The worst fear old men have is falling.”
Although Thacker is grateful for all the help he’s gotten over the years, and is proud of the increased demand that came about following his appearance with Mike Rowe, he says “Returning the Favor” also brought back an old problem.
At the end of the show, Rowe presented Thacker with an ATV made up to look like one of his toy cars, prepped and ready for appearances in local parades — along with a much bigger gift. Rowe handed Thacker and his wife a giant check, made out in the amount of $10,000.
Although he was thrilled, he soon received some bad news.
“The people that were paying my rent said ‘Well, you’ve got ten thousand, we don’t need to pay it anymore,'” Thacker said. “So we’re back where we were a year ago.”
With the increased demand and the everyday expenses his foundation faces, Thacker’s giant check continues to shrink. He thinks he has enough to keep going through December, which leaves the man who manufactures merriment right back where he started — fighting to keep the lights on.
But until the day help comes knocking, Thacker and the rest of his band of volunteers will keep working to make sure his biggest secret becomes as public as possible.
“The secret is, make somebody else happy,” he said. “And you’re happy.”