BY JIM MERCIER
When you think of the many different products that were once made in Racine, it’s easy to understand how our city was once considered to be an industrial powerhouse. Besides products for industry, the automotive market and agriculture, Racine also manufactured a variety of consumer-related items as well, including malted milk, clothing, wax products and many household goods. One of those consumer goods would have been a toy riding horse, which always brought joy and delight to so many children many years ago. I should know…I was one of them!
The unknown firm that manufactured these play horses was the DeLuxe Woodcraft Company, and the master toymaker behind the company was one, Edward Zimmers. Zimmers had been working for S C Johnson for 10 years when he decided to invest in his own wood molding company, DeLuxe Woodcraft, in 1946. He named his toy hobby horse the “Giddy-Ap,” and utilized springs, or gliders for movement (the first ones were rocking horses, however). He advertised his horse as, “America’s most realistic play horse.”
His creations were made of pressed pine sawdust and resins. After mixing the sawdust and resin at room temperature, the mixture was then placed into a metal mold, the bottom half being filled. After the top half was placed into position, it was then pressed before heading into the oven for about 20 minutes. When cooled, and after separating the two halves of the mold, a fully-formed horse was extracted from the mold, ready for painting. Final assembly would then take place, adding eyes, ears, a real horse tail, a saddle, reins and a few other necessities. Of course, this had the appearance of a solid wooden horse, unlike the plastic-based, “Wonder Horse,” their largest competitor.
According to an old ad which appeared in the Journal-Times back in 1952, the “Giddy-Ap” was the perfect playmate for children from 1 to 5 years old. It had a fully-formed body with a realistic suede finish. According to the ad, one could order either a Palomino or the Black Beauty model. Each horse came with a flashy leather saddle complete with a figured skirt with decorations. A chrome-finished tubular base provided support. The length was a full 3 feet long, with a width of 20 inches. The saddle height was 20 inches, the perfect size for little buckaroos.
From the beginning, his shop was located on the third floor of the Racine Industrial Plant (now, Racine Business Center), on 16th Street. Zimmers employed an average of five people when his company was in business. In addition to manufacturing play horses, he also made “brush backs,” which were made of the same sawdust/resin mix as his horses, but sold to companies including Electrolux, Eureka, Sunbeam and Westinghouse for use in their carpet cleaners and polishers.
However, in the summer of 1965, disaster struck when a fire occurred inside their shop, resulting in the suspension of all manufacturing operations. The cause of the fire was a ruptured hydraulic line that supplied oil to the oven, which, in turn, ignited the sawdust/resin mixture. At this time, the majority of their business was producing “brush backs,” since manufacturing horses was becoming less profitable (by now, they were only being made in the fall, in anticipation of the Christmas season). Zimmers had to take immediate action in order to resume manufacturing operations, so he purchased a building located at 1439 Junction, less than two blocks away from his former factory. Zimmers ended all hobby horse production at his new facility, concentrating on the “brush backs” and a few other products for industrial use. He kept the plant in operation until 1978, when he sold it to an Indiana company.
Ed Zimmers passed away in 2009, but throughout the 20 years that he made the “Giddy-Ap,” thousands of young cowboys and cowgirls have worn themselves out “riding the range” on his toy hobby horses created and manufactured by him.
We were able to “corral” five of them, and they can be seen at the Spirit of Racine Entrepreneurs Exhibit, located inside the Racine Business Center. As a side note, my 5-year-old grandson loves to arrange them in front of the old doctor’s buggy (incidentally, also made in that very building), and pretend to drive them on numerous adventures. For those interested in viewing them (as well as the entire exhibit), please call Emily at 637-3958 for an appointment.
Racine can be proud of “Jay Eye See,” the very famous record-setting race horse owned by Jerome I Case. We can also be proud of ANOTHER famous horse actually MADE here…the “Giddy-Ap.”
Local historian Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia. Some of his collection is in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Racine Entrepreneurs exhibit. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org