“DeKALB – David Miner of DeKalb describes his basement as a “toy museum,” and at first glance, it could be: it has miniature themed carousels, a large toyshop, an amusement park, Nutcracker theater, playhouse, schoolhouse, Santa’s house, a Christmas village, Santa’s barn and sleigh, multiple dollhouses and Santa’s workshop.
But what makes Miner’s toy museum unique is that every display was designed and created by him. There are about 200 motors powering different aspects of the displays, making dolls move, ski lifts operate and Santa and his elves make toys. He uses more than 20 power strips, but to keep energy costs and his electricity bill down, he only turns on one or two displays at a time. When it’s not Christmas, his displays are covered with plastic sheeting to protect them from sunlight and dust.
Each of Miner’s displays was made using creativity and engineering. A carousel is made from the rim of a mirror, broomstick handles and sheet metal. The spinning teacup ride in the amusement park is made from real teacups and the Ferris wheel was handmade. Miner constructed the dollhouses, adding lights and décor, including wallpaper, and he made many pieces of dollhouse furniture himself.
At the Nutcracker theater, dolls sit in handmade balcony seats eating popcorn and reading a program while watching ballet scenes. The Nutcracker theater was made in 1929 by Miner’s uncle, Dewey Miner, and was hidden away in the attic for many years. Miner refurbished the theater, adding floor lights, a backdrop, moving parts and the dolls’ viewing balcony.
Miner built the Christmas village located in the middle of his basement over 30 years. All of the buildings were handmade, the stones were placed one-by-one with tweezers, the bridge was made from the arch of a chair, and ice skaters rotate around an aluminum-foil lake using a clock motor. Two trains circle the village and there is a working ski lift carrying village residents.
One of the most mechanic displays is Santa’s workshop, which operates using 40 motors. Inside the workshop, there are moving details in each scene depicted. Santa can be seen reading his list of good and naughty children, wrapping a gift and helping to make toys. Elves make toys using a hammer, sander, drill press and saw. A mom elf sweeps up the mess.
“I love the little moving features, I tried to show what Santa’s workshop really looks like,” Miner said. “Adding a couple of motors to make the figures move and the lights turn on adds to the magic of it all.”
The Teacher Tinkerer’s Story
Miner, 77, was born in Bloomington, Indiana, and he moved to DeKalb as a child with his family. His father taught at Northern Illinois University for about 45 years. Miner has multiple degrees himself: a bachelor’s degree in physics and math, a master’s degree in secondary education and a doctorate in science education with a specialty in elementary education.
Both of Miner’s brothers also have physics degrees, as does his oldest nephew.
“My dad said the reason so many Miners have physics degrees is because they like to play with toys,” Miner said. “I just love all the motion and the laws of mechanics. I’m fascinated with the way things move up and down, and I love electricity and lights, sound and motors. All of my projects are a combination of all of that: Christmas, toys, science and physics.”
Miner taught at Waterman High School for 19 years, at Jefferson High School in Rockford for a year and then retired at age 55. He has never been married and has no children, but he keeps in touch with many former students who have become friends through the years.
Miner said his father, Wallace Blue Miner, was a great source of his inspiration. Although Miner said he has been working on projects “his entire life,” his love of making things began when his father gave him a hand drill when he was 10 years old.
Miner said other members of his family were also handy: his uncle made the Nutcracker theater and his dad made a rocking horse.
In his basement, Miner displays the rocking horse his father built. After three generations of children played on the horse, Miner fixed it and gave it an update. He tightened the joints, painted it and added an electric component to make it rock automatically with the touch of a button.
Another source of inspiration, and the model for the recreation of Santa’s toyshop, was the toy electric train in the window of Duffy and Modeen’s Firestone store on Lincoln Highway in DeKalb.
Miner remembers pressing his nose against the store’s glass window to watch the train, dreaming of the day he could own an expensive electric trainset. When he was in eighth grade, he spent $37.50 of his paper route earnings to purchase his first electric train.
“I’m definitely a kid at heart when it comes to trains,” Miner said. “My toyshop is my biggest display. There are rocking horses, cranes, an Erector set, trains, jacks, blocks, a seesaw, dolls and many, many moving aspects. It recreates all the toys we would have played with as kids, and maybe still do if you’re a kid at heart.”
In his displays, Miner finds ways to honor his family members. If you look carefully at his displays, you can find a photo of his paternal grandmother in a dollhouse, a photo of his father on a Nutcracker scene’s fireplace mantel, name settings for his sister’s childhood playmates at a
tea party and his maternal grandmother’s maiden name on the Christmas village’s one-room schoolhouse, a recreation of the building where she once taught.
“Family is the most important to me, there’s no doubt about that,” Miner said. “Family is No. 1 to me, with friends coming in a close second. Spending time together with family and friends is my favorite part of Christmas.”
More than displays
Before moving to a duplex at Oak Crest a few years ago, Miner decorated his family’s three-story house with his Christmas displays. Many of the displays were sold at auction before he downsized and moved.
Now his displays are mostly in his basement, but a few are spread on the main level of his residence. One large example is the one-of-a-kind, six-tiered Christmas tree carousel in his living room. The “tree,” made completely by hand from round wooden disks and covered with green felt, rotates and lights up. Each tier is different and features hanging ornaments that also move and Christmas tins. One tier has a moving toy train that circles the edge. The tree is topped with an angel named Clara, after Miner’s mother, and a Santa named Wallace, after his father.
Miner’s sunroom displays his collection of music boxes, most of which he made himself. He also has three large cuckoo clocks, with one based on the clock in Frankenmuth, Michigan. The largest of the clocks took him six months to make.
“For me, tinkering and making things is just a fun hobby, granted a hobby that has gotten a little out of hand,” Miner said. “We all have talents in different ways. I can make things, but I can’t paint scenes and I don’t really have any musical ability. We all have the ability to be creative, just in our own way.”
Miner said his biggest hope is to share his creations with the world. He hopes to find a business interested in displaying his projects so that others can enjoy what he’s made.
“I know I won’t live forever, and I’d like to find a good home for my projects,” Miner said. “I worry about what’s going to happen if – and when – I die. I want others to enjoy and see what I’ve made, and if someone is interested in purchasing my displays, I can help them take apart and reassemble it.
“I never imagined that my hobby would get this big,” he said. “It’s just so nice to see people’s reactions to what I’ve made, to see them become kids again. I’ve been working on projects all my life because I enjoy doing it. I have always just wanted to share that excitement and wonder with others.””
~ The MidWeek By KATRINA J.E. MILTON