Combine hand-made wooden toys with the true spirit of giving and you’ve got Christmas.
What child doesn’t love the look and feel of a wooden toy on Christmas morning – even if it wasn’t on the letter to Santa? It just wouldn’t be Christmas morning without at least one wooden toy that perhaps will last a lifetime and even be passed down to future generations.
A couple of real life Santas create Christmas year-round for some local children. Whether it’s in December or July, the two men create a Christmas atmosphere with their charming wooden toys and their St. Nick spirit. Oh, and each has a Mrs. Claus who adds her own talents in creating the Christmas magic. Meet Charles and Ann Howard of Abilene and Tom and Mary Watson of Clyde.
The Christmas spirit is reflected in the price tag for their creations – $0. The wooden toys come from the heart of both men, and neither would think of asking for payment.
“It’s just that I like to give them to people and they appreciate it,” Howard said.
“I’m not into this for money,” Watson said.
The couples don’t know each other but they have much in common. The Howards create handmade gifts for people at their church or for friends and relatives of members. Tom Watson creates wooden toys for children living at the Noah Project, an Abilene shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Mary Watson and her sister, Vivian Smith, make pillowcases for the Noah Project and quilts to donate to organizations for fundraising raffles. Ann Howard makes personalized baby burp towels and kitchen towels for baby and wedding showers.
With the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approaching, the Howards and the Watsons serve as excellent examples of why we celebrate both.
Growing up in San Angelo, Charles Howard was always whittling something, usually a car or airplane. He took woodwork shop classes in junior high school and then learned greater skills when he majored in industrial arts at then-Abilene Christian College. A big test of his skills came when his wife, Ann, learned that she was pregnant.
“I think I’ll build you a cradle,” Charles said.
Then, a trip to the doctor revealed that Ann was expecting twins. So, Charles got busy gathering tools and materials needed for two cradles.
“That was my first big project,” Charles said, “which really set me off to do more.”
Twin girls were born on July 18, 1967. They were named Charlotte and Annette for their parents. Annette died in April 2021 at age 53. A son, Mark, lives in Fort Worth. He didn’t get his own cradle but used one that a sister had broken in for him.
Today, Charles’ prized creation is a wheeled toy that children can pretend is a vacuum cleaner for playing indoors or a lawn mower or yard tool to pick up pecans for outdoor play. Charles creates a cylindrical wooden cage using dowel pins for the bars of the cage and round end pieces for the two wheels. The cage contains colored balls that make a pleasant rattle when the cage is rolled, using the long handle that is attached. He found plans for the toy and then tweaked the plans to his liking. Originally, he cut the wheels out of a piece of wood. Later, he created wheels by gluing strips of different woods together.
“I felt that added character,” Charles said.
His workshop is in a building behind the Howard home. There, he watches old Westerns on an overhead TV, especially ones starring John Wayne. The workshop is a great place to escape the ills of the world.
“I can get away from the news,” Charles said. “And, I can produce something that I’m proud of.”
Creating the rolling toy takes skill and patience. It is a multi-step process that involves cutting, drilling holes for the dowel pins and axles, gluing, sanding, applying finishing coats of acrylic, and repeating the last two steps–with drying time in between–until the finished product looks just right. About eight hours of work goes into each roller toy. Charles also makes wooden casserole carriers and an elephant puzzle, but the roller toy is his Number 1 project. Each carries his brand burned into it: “Handcrafted by Charles L. Howard”
Like Tom Watson, Charles Howard would never think of selling his toys. Both men say nobody could afford the toys if they charged for the materials and the time it takes to create them. But mainly, making money is not the point. Making kids happy is.
“I enjoy children having them,” Charles said.
Ann Howard was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and met her future husband at a church in Midland. Her parents had moved there after her freshman year at Texas Woman’s University in Denton and Charles worked there for Shell Oil Company. After they married, Ann taught physical sciences and chemistry in Midland but quit her job when she learned she was pregnant. They later moved to Casper, Wyoming, where Charles worked for Southwest Oilfield Products. In 1980, the company transferred him to Abilene.
Ann resumed her teaching career at Cooper High School. She taught regular and AP chemistry classes and was a sponsor for the Academic Decathlon team at Cooper until retiring in 1999. Charles had already retired from the Naval Reserve in 1990 and from Southwest Oilfield Products in 1998.
Ann learned her sewing skills from her mother, who taught home economics. Ann mastered her first stitch – a blanket stitch – by making baby blankets when she was seven years old. She learned to use a sewing machine in junior high school and honed her skills over the years by creating needed items and gifts.
“I made the girls’ clothes as long as they would wear homemade clothes,” she said.
Today, she makes only gifts. Whenever she shows up at a shower, everyone is excited to see what she created. Like her husband, Ann’s handmade gifts come from the heart. She has only one reason to sit down at the sewing machine and create a personalized gift.
“The joy that people express when they receive their gifts,” she said.
Tom and Mary Watson moved to Clyde from Prescott, Arizona, in 2015. It wasn’t long before Tom converted a 40- foot shipping container into a workshop, where he continues creating wooden toys he gives away. It’s a skill he learned after the couple moved to Prescott in 2011 from Phoenix, where Tom worked for 25 years for a telephone company.
In Prescott, Tom learned about the Yavapai Toy Makers, who were looking for more volunteers to create wooden toys to donate to a children’s hospital in Phoenix. He had learned woodworking skills in high school and had perfected them over the years doing odd jobs around the house. When the Watsons left Prescott for Clyde, Tom got permission to continue using the nine patterns that the Yavapai Toy Makers used.
In his Santa’s workshop in Clyde, Tom works his magic on a band saw, cutting pieces from planks of white pine and shaping them into adorable toys. He intentionally leaves them unpainted and unstained so the children can use their imaginations to decorate them.
Tom donates his creations primarily to Noah Project, but also gives some toys to other organizations. Jan Morrison, development director for Noah Project, said the toys are the perfect distraction for children while a parent is going through the intake process. And, the child gets to keep the toy whenever it’s time to leave Noah.
Tom makes five to ten toys a day in his workshop and takes pride in their “cuteness” and durability.
“If there’s a kid who can break one of these, I’ll given them two,” he said.
Among his creations are a caterpillar, train engine, whale, and Corvette. It takes Tom about one and a half hours start to finish each toy. There are numerous steps, starting with cutting an eight foot section of a two-by four board into six-inch pieces. That is followed by cutting the toy design, drilling axle holes, cutting windows where needed, routing to smooth edges, and sanding, making sure the axles turn smoothly.
“You’ve always got to make sure they roll,” Tom said. “No kid wants a toy that doesn’t roll.”
About mid-September each year, Tom starts making calls to see how many toys each agency will need to make it through the holidays. He takes twenty-five to thirty toys at a time to Noah Project which they give to children over the next three to four months. From January through mid-September of this year, Tom created 553 toys, “with orders on my desk for another hundred.”
Tom doesn’t make any toys that are Christmas-themed, but they just have that Christmas feel about them that makes them popular this time of year. One person stacked ten of his toys in the shape of a Christmas tree for a decoration.
As big a demand as there is for Tom’s toys, he paces himself. After all, he’s supposed to be retired and isn’t looking for a second career. “I try not to make it a full-time job,” he said. “ I still want it to be a hobby.
By Loretta Fulton
Photography By Shayli Anne Photography