An Interview with Gordon Batdorf Page 2
GB: Connie remembers, “We were happy living in Mound. We had a house on Langdon Lake built by Gordy and my dad. We [neighbors and coworkers] all knew each other. I was a Girl Scout leader with another wife whose husband worked at Tonka and in the summer our kids took swimming lessons together arranged by a friend. We had a lot of family time, too. When Gordy wasn’t traveling, he could be counted on to be home every afternoon about 5 PM for dinner – we always sat down together as a family.”
LV: Two decades at Tonka must have included many important accomplishments and opportunities to be proud of your work. Can you remember a project or time that you consider to be the most significant in your career?
GB: We were a group, a team effort. It wasn’t one person running everything. We all worked together. Our people knew what to do and how to do it. We respected each other and did our best to listen to employee suggestions for improving production or plant layout. It was a cooperative place and I had signs placed in every location of the plant that read: We are proud of our people, our product and our plant.
The design for Tonka’s aerial ladder fire truck was a good example of our team approach. Charlie (Groschen) came by my office with a truck – a beautiful toy suggestion for next year. I said come with me tomorrow morning to show Russ (Wenkstren). He looked at it and suggested a few changes. Charlie made a second truck incorporating the changes and we took it back to Russ who then made a few more suggestions. Finally, the third design was accepted. That’s how it was – always a team effort. I’m proud of that.
LV: Mound Metalcraft was born shortly after the end of WWII, a time when our country was entering an economic boom. What events, like military conflicts and economic situations, impacted your work at Mound Metalcraft and Tonka Toys?
GB: Our biggest success was fueled following World War II. Everything was about building and buying items that were affordable, including toys. The Korean War and Vietnam caused supply problems for us. We were making toys that was not a priority when it came to buying steel. It was hard to get, going first to the military. We bought steel from everywhere we could find it, including smaller suppliers. We even made arrangements with Ford Motor Company to buy their window blanks [the piece of steel punched out of the car body where a window will be placed].
Tonka Trucks Manufactured During Batdorf's Tenure
LV: You have enjoyed many experiences. What do you consider your most significant accomplishment as a professional?
GB: A few things come to mind – without a doubt taking an unknown toy company worth nothing to $80 million bucks. Then when I left Tonka, I also brought Larson boats out of bankruptcy. And our vision together as a couple, Connie and I, we’ve always known how to pick up and go on and we have a lovely family – four daughters and a son.
LV: Looking back, and if you could choose anything, what career would you have opted for and why?
GB: I would choose what I did, working at Tonka toys. Ours was a company of hard-working, highly productive and honest people who were proud to be associated with Tonka.
LV: The Tonka Toy Company of Mound, Minnesota projected the finest traits of American ingenuity – designing and building quality toys in a small town in our country’s heartland. That was a recipe for success and who better than Gordon Batdorf and the employees of Tonka Toys to usher American families toward the good times. Their work would be rewarded for years to come by families from all over the world.
To learn more about the history of the Tonka Toy Company, plan a visit to the Westonka History Museum, 5341 Maywood Rd., Mound Minnesota, open Saturdays 10 – 2 and by appointment. Leave a message at 952-472-9800 and a volunteer will return your call. Tour the Tonka Toys exhibit and stop by the museum gift shop for a copy of Tonka, by Dennis David and Lloyd Laumann, chronicling the history of the company. Visit the Westonka Historical Society on the web.
The interview with Gordon Batdorf was published in the Westonka Historical Society newsletter, Volume 17, No.3 – 2014. Permission granted for use on this website by Pam Myers, President. Liz Vandam, Treasurer, conducted the interview.