Fire! Fire! Fire!
As I researched the manufacturer of our newest family heirloom -- Mr. Curator's childhood "pirate" toy chest -- I discovered that we may own a unique relic of a once-thriving American toy company.
Fire at former Cass Toy factory, January 19, 2012
Photo by Gary Beauchemin, K&G Photography, Used with Permission
The more I read about the Cass Toy Company, the more I was intrigued by the story of this successful three-generation business that was devastated by fire over and over again.
Although this complete history may be somewhat lengthy for our toy chest entry at The Heirloom Registry, I am sure a summary version will give future readers some idea of the story behind our family heirloom.
Less than one year ago, in January 2012, the former Cass Toy Factory on Canal Street in Athol, Massachusetts was completely demolished by a massive fire that set off several explosions and called in over 100 firefighters to fight the blaze. The wooden building was being used for storage.
Ironically, the Cass Toy warehouse on nearby South Athol Road suffered a similar fate on May 16, 1996 when fire broke out in the building causing nearby homes to be evacuated. The huge fire destroyed the warehouse and an adjacent home, and damaged six other homes on the street.
Throughout it's long history, Cass Toys had been hit by fire at least once before. In 1917, The Standard weekly insurance newspaper reported
March 20, fire in the plant of the N.D.Cass Company caused loss est at $10,000. The building formerly owned by the Eagle Furn Co frame and unsprinklered O.J. Powers 6 Sons, hat mfgrs, loss of $2,000 on mdse stored in the building and Ira D. Cass had a partial loss on automobiles, insured for $12,000.
The total devastation of the 1996 fire, however, must have come at a time when it was more prudent to retire than rebuild. According to newspaper reports, the Cass Toy Company closed its doors in 1997.
Former Cass Toy Factory, Athol, MA, 2010
For over 100 years, Cass Toys manufactured and sold a wide variety of children's toys and musical instruments, including pianos, drums, chalkboards, and wooden furniture. Founded in 1893 by Nathan D. Cass, at one time the firm boasted factories in Athol, Hingham, and Somerville, Massachusets and in Brent, Alabama, with showrooms on Fifth Avenue in New York City. In 1921, the company proposed expanding to with a plant in Manchester, Vermont.
Cass was well-known for the popular Casspinette children's pianos, sized from table models to baby grand, all produced at the Athol toy factory. A 1974 newspaper article notes that the Brent plant produced planned to add piano manufacture to it's 15,000 toy chests, 60,000 blackboards, 100,000 child's rockers, and 22,500 play and peg desks.
A 1943 advertisement in the trade magazine, Playthings announced
We’re Busy on Two Fronts
The Home Front – Thanks to your cooperation – in spite of present difficulties – our popularly priced, individually boxed military toys and train sets will be as widely and equitably distributed as is humanly possible under existing conditions.
The War Front – Yes, we’re backing the attack by devoting the major portion of our extensive manufacturing facilities to Uncle Sam. And when war’s over over there, our enlarged plant with additional modern equipment will enable us to serve you better than ever.
Wood Toys have been featured by America’s leading wholesalers and retialers for three generations.
Buy War Bonds!
N.D. Cass Co. W. F. Cass, Gen Manager
Factories, Athol, Hingham, Somerville, Mass.
Showroom: Room 314, 200 Fifth Avenue, New York 10, N.Y.
Cass Wood Toys have been featured by America’s leading wholesalers and retailers for three generations.
Cass wooden toys were well-positioned to weather the wartime shortages of the 1940's. With metal in short-supply, Cass could meet the demand for children's Christmas gifts with their quality wooden furniture, accessories, and toys.
Who were these three generations of American wood toy makers?
Nathan D. Cass was a native New Yorker, born in 1875, the son of an English machinist. By 1900, he was married to Grace M. Fish of Massachusetts and the couple was living with Grace's parents in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts. Nathan's occupation was listed in the federal census as paper box manufacturer.
In 1906, William F. Cass is born; the young family continues to live with Grace's parents, and by 1910 Nathan is in the toy business. In 1920, Nathan Cass is listed in the federal census for the first time as a Head of Household, although his mother-in-law, presumably a widow, is still living in the home. William F. is now 13 years old and has a young sister, Grace, just over one year old. Nathan now makes a living from a "toy shop."
In 1930, Nathan and Grace move to Florida, leaving William F. Cass in charge of the Athol toy business. William appears in the 1930 federal census age 24 with wife Hazel E. Cass. They own a radio set and live in an average-priced home on Union Street in Athol.
By 1940, however, William has a new address and a new wife. He is now married to Mabel E. Cass, age 38, and the couple has a five year old son, William F. The family now live on Old Keene Road in Athol and their home valued at $8000 is the most expensive on the block, nearly three times the value of their neighbors. At an annual salary of $4420 with other income as well, William is also the highest wage-earner on his street.
A 2007 obituary for William F. Cass, Jr. fills in some of the story of the Cass family. The late toymaker, son of William F Cass, Sr. and Mabel E. (Peppard) Cass. He was survived by his wife of 54 years, Martha (Still) Cass, and by two daughters, Gina L. Cass and Lori Stewart, and two sons Bradford N. Cass and William Brent Cass, as well as 15 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.
Mr. Cass was the past president of N.D. Cass Co., Inc., of Athol, N.C. Cass Co. of Brent, Alabama and Cass Sales Company in New York City. For many years he operated Cass Dairy Farms in Athol. Mr. Cass was a life long member of the Athol-Orange Elks Club. He was also a member of the Kiwanis Club, Camp Cheneo, Petersham Curling Club and the Toy Manufacturers of America. Mr. Cass owned harness race horses for over 40 years. His passion for the sport took him from Maine to Florida. He was a member of the Standardbred Owners of New England, New York, New Jersey and Florida. Bill enjoyed many years of retirement in Pompano Beach, Florida. Bill was known to enjoy an occasional bet now and then and loved his trips to Las Vegas and Foxwoods.
Abram Cass was a craftsman machinist who must have taught his son Nathan something about creating things with his hands. Nathan went on from making paper boxes to make wooden toys, and created a thriving business that weathered two world wars, the Great Depression, and the rise of computer games. Abram's legacy grew into a business that employed hundreds of people in Massachusetts and Alabama, building toys and furniture that would be enjoyed by thousands of children.
I'm saddened that the legacy of Cass Toy Company went up in flames with the warehouse in 1996. It would be nice to think they are still turning out sturdy toy chests with brightly painted pirate scenes. On eBay, Cass Toys have become somewhat collectible and chests like ours are fairly hard to find. I'm glad we saved it from the estate sale, and happier yet that it is once again a Pirate Toy Chest.
You are invited to read the history of our Pirate Toy Chest at The Heirloom Registry--
Go to The Heirloom Registry website http://www.heirloomregistry.com
Enter the registration serial number in the photo below.
Article and Photographs Copyright Denise Levenick, The Family Curator, 2012, All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise noted.
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Barnes, George. “Fire destroys former Athol toy factory: Blace closes Canal Street.” Worcester Telegram & Gazette – telegram.com, 19 January 2012, http://www.telegram.com/article/20120119/NEWS/120119451/0
Ed Watkins, NewsWest Alabama Editor, “Santa may do his shopping in Brent,” The Tuscaloosa News – Dec 15, 1974, 16A, Sunday Google news.
Johnson, Patrick. “Former Cass toy factory in Athol goes up in flames,” Masslive.com, 19 January 2012, http://blog.masslive.com/breakingnews/print.html?entry=/2012/01/former_cass_toy_factory_in_ath.html
Playthings, Oct 1943, pg 69, http://www.antiquetoycollections.info/catalogs/CassAds.pdf
The Standard, March 31, 1917, Volume 80, pg 349.
William F. Cass, Jr., 73 of Athol, 22 July 2007, http://www.fiskemurphymack.com/obits/obituary.php?id=134375
Copyright Denise Levenick, The Family Curator, 2012.
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