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Toying Around Got
TB Patient Back on Track

In 1932, just a year after he graduated from Wharton, Marshal H. Larrabee II's banking career derailed when he suddenly collapsed and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. But for Larrabee, now age 90, that devastating illness led to a successful vocation he never would have predicted-making toy trains.
   After his treatment in a sanitarium, the doctors ordered "absolute rest," but Larrabee, W'31, who had rowed for four years on Penn's crew team, was restless to do something. They suggested he find
Photo of Larrabee
a hobby, so he obtained some woodworking tools and tinkered around in his Skaneateles, N.Y., home for 10 to 15 minutes in the mornings, and then 10 to 15 minutes in the afternoons-about all the exertion he could handle. "One day, when I had made some trains and birdhouses and things like that, I said to my wife, 'What will I make next?' She said, 'Make a little train a child can hold in his hand.' So that was it."
   The tiny trains were an instant hit with his family and neighborhood children. Larrabee eventually went around the country pitching his toys to buyers, landing Marshall Field's in Chicago as his first customer in 1936. He bought an old mill and formed Skaneateles Handicrafters, turning out millions of toy trains in the years that followed. The business was sold to a German-based toymaker in 1980 and became T.C. Timber/ Habermaass Corp, but he still serves as assistant secretary.
   "I had a premonition that they might be popular," Larrabee says of his woodshop creations. "We were the first in the business and we created a whole new industry from wooden trains. We made a whole lot of things," he adds-not just trains, but puzzles and instrument cases and thermometer racks, "anything that was small. We were really a job shop." In fact, long before concepts such as flex-time were part of the labor lexicon, Larrabee says, his employees could tailor their work schedules to their needs. "We were very, very progressive. We didn't have any pension, but we had what I called an 'open house.' You came when you wanted to and went when you wanted to. Sometimes we had as many as 100 employees at a time at our shop. Some wanted to take airplane lessons, some wanted to get false teeth, some just wanted some spending money, and some wanted to work at 12 o'clock at night.
   "I miss it very much," says Larrabee, who as of December had not been to visit the T. C. Timber factory for three weeks because of poor health. "It was something new every day. Our business all came over the telephone. It was unsolicited. All we had to do was make what anybody wanted."
   And what was left over, countless odd-shaped scraps of hardwood, went to local teachers who were allowed to visit the factory on Sunday mornings and cart back the seconds to their schools for art projects. The Central Region of the New York State Art Teachers Association recently honored Larrabee for his longtime "wood giveaways," according to his granddaughter, Laura Delgado Behenna, C'86 (just one of several Penn grads in the family).
   Even in an age of high-tech toys, the wooden trains still hold great appeal. "My two-year-old adores them," says Behenna, who has kept some of the original, unpainted trains from her grandfather's factory. She has her own memories of playing with them as a child. "My two older brothers and I would wake up early in the morning and cover the house. We would ride our trains across the floors through the kitchen and the dining room. We just had a blast with it. My mom was a patient woman."
   She also remembers summers spent playing inside her grandfather's factory after hours and on weekends. He often whistled while he worked, says Behenna. "It wasn't until I went to Penn that I realized the songs he whistled were all Penn songs."

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