|By Eric C. Rodenberg
LEBANON, Ind. — Robert P. Carter was everything a collector should be.
His enthusiasm for toys was overwhelming … larger than life.
Carter loved buying toys, he loved playing with toys, he loved talking about toys … but most importantly, he loved sharing his toys with the world.
“He was just a big kid,” said Jean Carter, his wife of 58 years. “He just loved toys … and what he loved the most, were the smiles that came from kids – and adults – who came into our toy museum.”
The Carter Toy Museum, located in Zionsville, a picturesque brick-paved suburb of Indianapolis complete with old-fashioned style street lamps, upscale antique shops, an antiquarian bookstore and fine restaurants was the crown of achievement for Robert Carter.
Built to Carter’s exact specifications in 2005, the 13,800 square-foot detailed, three-floor brick and oak museum was filled with an overwhelming array of toys. In the center of the second floor, was a working 1946 20-foot carousel (one of only three manufactured that year) featuring 16 hand-painted figures including horses, rabbits, dogs, pigs and more. Elsewhere, the walls, shelves and showcases were packed with colorful wind-up toys, more than shiny 200 pedal cars (from 1917-1940, including airplanes, ice cream trucks and racers) were displayed on the first floor, more than 200 vintage pressed-steel trucks, mechanical and still banks, marbles, dolls and toys soldiers lined the walls or filled the 50 glass display cases.
It was a “House of Joy.”
At Carter’s, the fun was nearly endless.
In addition, there were more than 50 coin-operate machines – all in working condition – ranging from a “hop-on and ride” camel, to an elephant, rocket ship and race cars. At the nickelodeons kids (and, of course, adults) would muster up their muscle for the “Bull” strength tester.
There was everything from the iconic genesis of today’s electronic gaming, Ms. Pac-Man, to clear back to a circa-1900 animated newspaper boy. Slip a nickel into the old newsboy motor slot and he began perpetually pedaling the Detroit Free Press throughout the Motor City.
Fully functioning carnival bumper cars from the 1960s helped distill some of the energy (and aggression) from the kids in preparation for the long trip home.
The House of Joy took both adults and kids to its own place of timelessness.
Located dead center in the Midwest, the museum attracted visitors from all over the country – and often, from other countries of the world. One of the true tests of a museum, is the “return traffic.” Carter’s Toy Museum had no problem there.
“That was one of the amazing things,” said Jean Carter, “people would keep returning. And, it wasn’t always just the kids that were fascinated, but adults loved this place … especially the second floor. The number of grandfathers who came in; they just kept returning with their grandchildren, or friends of their same ages. It was constant. And Robert, he loved talking with them. He would talk, and talk, and talk. He knew the history of each piece, could tell you where he bought it … he loved sharing this so much.”
On Oct. 5-6, Robert Carter will have his last chance to share his toys with the public. He died unexpectedly at the age of 77 in August 2011. Since then, managing the museum, plus other businesses started by her husband just became too much for Jean.
She closed the museum the last day of 2011.
Unable to sell the museum intact, Jean consigned Morphy Auctions of Denver, Pa. to sell the museum building and all of its contents in a live auction at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds in Lebanon, Ind. There will be no phone or Internet bidding, and all museum contents will be offered without reserve.
The toy collection, in mass, which fascinated thousands of visitors to Carter’s museum during the past six years is already enthralling toy collectors from across the country.
Both she and Morphy’s Auction has been inundated by calls – and with good reason.
Unquestionably, the Carter toy collection is one of the largest private collections to ever be amassed. The acquisition of the toys stretches back 70 years, with Robert’s father – Paul – who started Carter Van Lines in 1928. While making those early runs throughout the country, Paul Carter was apt to pull off the road and – if there was enough room in the moving van – buy antiques. As an inveterate buyer he filled up barns, warehouses and all manner of buildings, compelling his wife – Sylvia – to open Sycamore Hill Antique Shop in Zionsville in 1949.
Still, it was difficult for Sylvia to keep up with Paul’s buying.
When Robert took over the personal property moving line in 1962, he naturally followed suit. It wasn’t too long until Robert was filling up sheds, barns, warehouses and houses with his collection. Even, while not working, Robert and Jean’s “buying trips” became legendary. “We’d start out in the car, and pretty soon he was cramming everything he could into the vehicle,” she said. “It got to the point where there was hardly room to drive … or ride.”
Then, Robert began buying larger and larger cars. Then, he began attaching a trailer behind the car. And, even then, it wasn’t unusual – Jean says – that he for him to dispatch one of his van drivers to a location to pick up an antique.”
When Robert Carter opened the large three-floor museum in 2006, he was skeptical his collection would fill the building.
Little worry there, Jean says.
“Robert was one of the very few people that other collectors and dealers hated seeing coming to the local auctions, especially if there was a toy up for sale,” according to fellow collector and premier toy restorer Randy Ibey. “Robert’s passion for old toys did not stop at a toy if it was $5,000 or $5. He loved them all.”
The collection – and sale – has so many highpoints that it’s almost impossible to segregate any one category. There will be old movie and circus posters, a working ice cream parlor, in which Robert particularly savored his grand-daughter’s root beer floats (“in no time, he gained 20 pounds,” Jean says), and classic scale toys by Marx, Linemar and Lehmann.
As any eclectic collector, Carter would go through phases where he would get “hung up” on exclusively collecting that particular item, before moving on.
There was the “hit and miss” engine period, when he collected the old four-stroke internal combustion flywheel engines from the 1890s through the 1940s. That period accounts for the New Way, Economy, Root & Vandervoort, Leader, Duplex, Jaeger, Kewanee, Sta-Rite, Waterloo Boy and others up for sale.
Then, there was the “coin-op” period. “I never thought he’d get over that,” Jean said. However that singular obsession today prompts Morphy Auctions CEO Dan Morphy to characterize the collection as “a very significant grouping. The timeline spans much of the 20th century. Collectors are going to be very impressed by the variety.”
And, then there’s the fleet of antique vehicles: 1929 Ford Model A, a 1927 Buick, 1928 Oakland and a 1936 Ford truck, all complemented by a Wizard motorbike, Cushman scooter and a 1959 surrey that will cross the auction block.
For Jean and anyone who had visited the Carter Toy Museum, the memories Robert P. Carter left in the minds of children, adults and the town of Zionsville have to be indelible. And from a broad swatch of America, sellers, fellow collectors and toy enthusiasts remember the love and devotion that one man brought to a simple hobby.
“I think we had something here from every state in the country,” Jean said. “We had so much fun. It was a good life.”
Contact: (717) 335-3435