They’re small, plain and almost nondescript. Tiny World War I soldiers barely 2 inches high, painted in ordinary shades of brown and black, they tend to recede into the background amid the gaudy plastic action figures and improbably colorful monsters of the America’s Monsters, Superheroes, and Villains toy exhibit on display through Jan. 2 at the Goldstein Museum of Design on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.
But in many ways, the little lead soldiers are at the heart of the entire collection.
St. Anthony Park resident Gilbert Barnhill made the soldiers as a child during World War II, pouring lead that he had melted in a saucepan on his mother’s stove in Omaha into small manufactured molds. Because it was wartime, hobby supplies were scarce and lead ingots were nowhere to be had; but Gilbert’s mother rose to the challenge. Mrs. Barnhill persuaded a local printing shop to allow her son to transform cast-off lead type into little World War I doughboys. It was the kind of parental resourcefulness that was to become a family tradition in the Barnhill clan.
Gilbert Barnhill, 89, is a resident of the St. Anthony Park Home and these days he mostly leaves the talking to others. His son, David, is eager to speak about the role his dad played in the toy collection, which eventually grew to more than 200,000 items.
“I was blessed with amazing parents who valued my collection and didn’t throw things away,” says David.
For the Barnhill family, collecting seemed to have come with the territory. During his childhood in the 1960s and ’70s, David says, “We lived in a big, creepy house in Prospect Park.” Of course, “creepy” is a term of high praise in the vocabulary of man who has devoted much of his life to collecting toy monsters.
“Father collected antique guns, but none of them worked,” he says. “My mother was a hoarder who collected cookbooks and antique dishes. . . . My sister is more of a minimalist, but even she can’t completely escape the hoarding instinct.”
David can’t exactly remember when his own fascination with monsters got its start, but it may have been the day he suggested to his dad that the two of them give his mother the Creature from the Black Lagoon for Christmas. He thinks he was about 3 at the time, but before long Gilbert and David had moved to the hands-on phase. Where other fathers and sons of the era might have gathered round the dining room table to build model airplanes, the Barnhills put together Aurora plastic monster model kits.
“Dad painted the models,” recalls his son, and the senior Barnhill wasn’t above adopting a signature decorative style. How else to explain the 10-inch-high plastic Frankenstein with the dark purple face or the Phantom of the Opera with distinctive aquamarine features?
Then there were the film compilations. “Dad worked as a film editor at Channel 11 WTCN in those days, and I was this crazy obsessive kid about toys. Each year he would give me a 10-minute reel of all the greatest monster TV ads.”
All are currently on display at the Goldstein Museum show, along with David’s other favorites. “There was Horrible Hamilton, a bug with a pull string, and the Thing-Maker, [a plastic mold for] the ‘lead soldiers’ for my generation.”
David, who still lives in his childhood home, remembers his youth as “a Golden Age of toys. . . . [Y]ou could play in the dirt with those plastic monsters from the ’60s.” He describes how he and his friends would use a hose to create the “Lagoon”—a small pond next to his house. “We’d build castles and stock them with plastic monsters, and then we’d create high drama—monster opera!”
While young David was happily slaying monsters by the Lagoon, his father was already devoting himself to the curatorial tasks of maintaining the burgeoning collection. “Father would sort and label everything,” says David, who estimates that by 1970, when he was 12, the collection already numbered 50,000 items.
And there was more to come. Much more. After David grew up, he wandered the world, traveling to Asia, Africa, South America and beyond. Everywhere he went, he collected “spooky” items like leather masks, silver-inlaid ram skulls and a genuine baboon skull, all of which he shipped home to Prospect Park. His parents were unfazed and “the boxes would just accumulate unopened by my [bedroom] door.”
In fact, his mother was more than tolerant. “My mother was still giving me toys into my 40s,” says David. “She was always going to Toys R Us, right up until she died.”
Aided by his parents and his own connoisseur’s enthusiasm, David broadened his collection to “comic books, posters, books, CDs and DVDs”—all on the theme of toy good guys and bad guys.
Gilbert carefully filed and stored the many parts of the collection, while David occupied himself with starting a business devoted to—what else?—the creation of haunted houses for entertainment purposes. The toy collection stayed strictly on the sidelines until David “got burnt out on” the haunted house business and came up with the idea of sharing his collection with a new generation. After the show at the Goldstein Museum closes in January, David and his business partner, Stephen Rueff, hope to take the collection on the road, creating new exhibits and finding new venues for the Barnhill family’s ruling passion.
Did the Barnhills miss out on anything by devoting themselves so unreservedly to a life filled with toys? David says no. “I had the best parents and the most magical childhood and life. And it carries on to this day. I got to be who I wanted to be.”
Does his father feel the same? Gilbert isn’t saying, but David offers a telling anecdote. In 2000, Gilbert was semi-retired from his TV career. The original lead soldiers had been packed away for more than 60 years, when one day David came home to a curious sight. “I found Father melting lead on the kitchen stove to make soldiers once again.”
You can find out more about the future adventures of the Barnhill toy collection by visiting their website www.supermonstercity.com.