CROQUET:  The Lost Art of Toy Making in South Bend

16 August 1999
South Bend Tribune
by KATHY BORLIK
photo by PAUL RAKESTRAW

Louis Chreist remembers fondly the glory years of the South Bend Toy Co. He holds a couple of pieces from a croquet set that the company made.
Louis Chreist was delighted to hold a South Bend Toy croquet mallet again. The 88-year-old fingered it and looked closely at the design. "It is hard maple, and this one looks as if it has been repainted. This one has been through some tough matches,'' he said, looking at some dings.

"And look at this croquet ball,'' he said, running his hands over a gold South Bend Toy ball.

He then explained how the balls were turned and smoothed into perfect orbs.

The craftsmanship evident in a South Bend Toy croquet set was part of its downfall: It was so sturdy that no one had to buy a second set. He was joking, but, he said, it was true -- people seldom bought a second set.

After all these years, he doesn't have a croquet set anymore; his old one is up at the lake with the grandchildren. And he doesn't have many other reminders of the company he ran for so many years. No little wagons or doll carriages.

He said keeping toys of that size takes up a lot of room.

But Chreist still has a fondness for croquet and for toys. He was president of South Bend Toy from 1960 until he retired in 1977.

The company was owned by the Badet family until 1956 when it was sold to a Chicago-based investment firm.

In 1960, it merged with Playskool, and then later Playskool became a subsidiary of Milton Bradley. Eventually, Milton Bradley became a
subsidiary of Hasbro.

The plant on Sample Street closed in 1985.

The factory building was later the South Bend License Branch; today it houses South Bend Chocolate.

Chreist said that to this day, he still marvels when he walks down a toy aisle. He checks out what is popular and what has staying power. He hasn't lost touch with the child within.

However, it isn't children who run the business these days. "Money dominates,'' he said.

Croquet in the making

Toys played an important role in South Bend's formative years. South Bend Toy employed hundreds of people for more than 100 years. The line of toys expanded from croquet to doll carriages and wagons.

John W. Teel, a woodworker, and Frederick Badet, a grocery clerk, began to make croquet sets in a small woodworking shop along the river race in 1874. The men fashioned the sets in their spare time out of locally grown hardwood.

The South Bend Toy Works was formally organized in 1882 as leisure activities became more popular. Croquet had become the rage in England in the 1860s.

Before that point, croquet and golf have the same ancestor in the Roman game of paganica, according to the Croquet Association of
Queensland Inc.

A game with a ball and unlimited space became a golf course. A course with limited room became croquet.

It was taken to England in the 17th century by a group of Irish travelers.

In 1867, the game was organized, and a book of tactics was written in 1868. It became a bit more popular when couples were courting. A ball hit into the woods would become a chance to flirt and sneak a kiss. The long skirt was also a tactic for hiding a croquet ball.

Back in South Bend, the company expanded and eventually added to its line rocking horses, doll carriages and child-size Studebaker farm
wagons.

The Studebaker wagons were at first used as advertising replicas in showrooms. They quickly became popular toys.

In 1897, Sears and Roebuck sold South Bend Toy rocking horses called "Shoo Fly Rockers.''

The line quickly expanded, and by 1911 a 90-page catalog detailed the toys that were available through the South Bend company.

For example, the 1911 catalog mentions a plain eight-ball croquet set sold for 75 cents, while a fine shellac-finished set sold for $2.25.

From laborer to president

Chreist started as a hardware packer and a laborer in the reed room at South Bend Toy in 1926, while he was a student at South Bend Central High School.

He continued to work there through high school, later graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1933 with a degree in architecture. "There were no jobs, so I went back to South Bend Toy.''

He moved from payroll worker to timekeeper to cost accountant to plant superintendent to vice president and then executive vice president. He was named president in 1960.

Chreist said the company's tight-knit group of workers came from the surrounding neighborhood of West Sample Street. "Many were Polish and Hungarians from those fine neighborhoods out there.''

It was never a huge plant, he said. At its peak in the 1970s, there "400 to 430 employees.'' But the familiar red-white-and-blue logo was famous nationally for the craftsmanship it symbolized.

Before he retired, the toy business was moving in a direction with which he was uncomfortable. "Hasbro had success in war toys. I wanted no part in that.

"My philosophy of toys was that it was first that it entertained and educated the child. It should teach how to play with other children or how to treat others. It should have a moral value,'' Chreist said, even in play. "It should teach without shaking a finger.''

A few good toys are better than rooms of mediocre toys.

"People shouldn't go overboard on computers," he said. "Take kids away from them and get them outside.''