By all accounts, 1957 was a highly profitable year for the A.C. Gilbert Company. It was also the year my father bought me my first complete train set, the "Keystone Rocket Freight" featuring the new, more powerful 0-6-0 switcher with slope-back tender. That set was part of the legacy he left, and just one reason for my current enthusiasm for American Flyer trains.
Walter O'Connell, my dad, spent 17 years working in the paint department and plating room at the Gilbert plant in New Haven. Known by his nickname, Okie, he was well regarded by his co-workers. His job involved degreasing metallic raw materials and stripping paint from various pieces. His work brought him into contact with a wide variety of toys manufactured by the Gilbert Company.
I was six when this photo was taken.
Okie worked hard to make a living. By today's standards, the Gilbert factory was a sweat shop. Unfortunately there wasn't anything resembling OSHA to provide for safer working conditions and Gilbert persistently fought off attempts at unionization. Nonetheless, my father liked his job and looked forward to his work there. A.C., as my father called his boss, knew each one of his employees and spent time chatting with them during the course of a day's work. I still have my father's copy of The Man Who Lives In Paradise with the personal inscription: "Dear Walter, With my best wishes, A.C."
My father was just as fond of A.C.'s son Al Gilbert, who, as I recall was well liked for his personal warmth and friendliness. Together the Gilberts established a work place where employees felt like they were part of a family where one's work was appreciated and where one was treated with personal respect.
Not surprisingly, my dad's good feelings translated into my boyhood preoccupation with Gilbert toys and particularly American Flyer trains. I retain vivid memories of those days. There was the annual Christmas program at the plant for the employee's children, replete with plastic Santa sleighs filled with candy. Service dinners were held each year honoring employees with 10 or more years of continuous service and lapel pins, which I still have, not to mention AF locomotive tie clips, were awarded. And there were the annual picnics at the Paradise Game Farm for the employee's families.
There was also the store inside the Peck Street factory entrance where emplyees were entitled to a discount on Gilbert-made toys. These trips to the store I thoroughly enjoyed. My dad would walk me over on a Saturday morning and buy a piece of American Flyer equipment to add to my train collection. Even with the discount, a toy train was a very expensive purchase. A New Haven Electric diesel, for example, cost more than half of my father's weekly pay. And at a young age, I was remarkably aware of the sacrifice involved in buying me just one Central of Georgia boxcar or even more so an action car such as the Moe and Joe Lumber Unloader.
As he came home from the plant each day, I knew firshand how hard my father had to work to buy those trains. Yet how excited and awed I was to own a piece of AF rolling stock that my father had, in some small but important way, participated in producing. And what a sense of pride swelled up inside my dad to see his son so thoroughly pleased.
When we couldn't aford a boxcar or accessory, I was delighted to make the almost ritualistic trek to the employee's store to pick up the latest Gilbert toy catalog. A Gilbert catalog alone could provide me, an only child, with endless hours of excitement and reading enjoyment.
I liked the various Erector sets and was quite fond of the brick building sets, but it was always the AF trains that mesmerized me and captivated my imagination. The store's main attraction, however, was its magnificent, fully operational AF layout. Here all the fantastic items pictured in the catalogs came to life before my very eyes and ears.
The book A.C. Gilbert's Heritage states that the company reached its peak in 1958. The year 1959 then was the beginning of a period of decline, and it was punctuated by the worst and most tragic accident in the plant's history. That year my father was overcome by highly noxious fumes and succumbed to his death having fallen into a tank of chemical paint stripper.
Like perhaps so many other employees, my dad had the spirit of a proud man who worked as if he owned a part of that factory. His labor was highly valued and integral to the total product. Is it any wonder then that the A.C. Gilbert Company produced a line of American Flyer electric trains that represented the finest tradition of American craftsmanship and ingenuity?
Today I collect and operate the very same AF trains that provided me with endless hours of delight as a youngster. Ironically, my father always said that they would be worth a lot of money some day. Perhaps we AF operators all share a certain desire to return momentarily to our boyhood wonder. Perhaps it's a sense of nostalgia we are searching for. For me, I also see part of my father invested in those toys. I hope to pass on that tremendous sense of pride, awe and delight to my own daughter, for today AF trains can be enjoyed by girls too.
Craig S. O'Connell
New Haven, Connecticut
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Changes last made on: August 21, 1997.
NASG Bernie Thomas Award, 2003 NASG Perles Publications Award, 1997
NASG Bernie Thomas Award, 2003
NASG Perles Publications Award, 1997
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