Victorbilt Toys, a creation of Victor Giebelstein and his wife, Barbara, was in business in Ames from 1981 until 1997. During that period thousands of wooden toys were made and sold locally, nationally, and internationally. Who can forget the instant appeal of the wonderful toys in the window display at the Senior Center’s former location in the Sheldon-Munn Hotel?
The genesis of the business can be traced to the birth of the couple’s first grandchild in 1980. Victor was upset at the cost of toys being purchased by Barb, and stated that if he had the tools he would make toys for the grandkids himself. A week later Vic was assembling Sears shop equipment purchased by Barb as a surprise. The toy that launched their commercial venture was a jeep that friends immediately began requesting. The name Victorbilt was picked by the Giebelstein’s sons for its resemblance to Peterbilt, a toy truck brand. Early sources of wood included dumpsters at building sites, recycled pallets from 3M or Hach Chemical Company, and broken pine boards from their son’s Tae Kwon Do club in Story City. The latter source provided excellent material for the folding farm fences. Wood scraps would sometimes be purchased by the pound from local lumberyards or the Buttermore Saw Mill of rural Ogden, Iowa. Exotic woods were obtained at Paxton’s in Des Moines. Textiles on sale frequently provided Barb with enough material to make cushions for the toy furniture.
The concept was to design appealing and affordable toys, construct them of durable hard woods, and protect them with a tough, easily cleaned, 4-coat polyurethane finish to assure survivability. The first show was a joint venture of Barb’s hand-made baby quilts and Vic’s toys at a swap meet south of Boone. It was a complete flop – probably due to the fact that they were selling out of the back of their pickup truck during an Iowa rainstorm. At the next show, a park in Slater, Barb sold more quilts than Vic did toys – not a good sign. However, some success was experienced at the Art in the Park when it was still held in the Ames Bandshell Park. After becoming part of the Early Bird Shows and travelling to larger towns, the budding enterprise began to experience true success. At the Des Moines show Victorbilt was asked to join the Autumn Festival Shows which were held in even bigger locales. At this point, Barb quit making quilts to help Vic with the toys.
Demand for Victorbilt Toys came via repeat customers as well as word of mouth from show-goers. A lady in Shakopee, Minnesota bought one of everything through the years. At shows, long lines formed waiting for the toy booth to open. Other show exhibitors would often buy toys before opening time. This meant that an item could be sold out before the public had a chance to buy. To gauge demand within Ames, Vic or Barb had only to drive by the Senior Center and look in the Sheldon-Munn show windows to see what toys needed restocking the next day. An appraisal of toy appeal could be easily determined by observing how smeary the windows were from kids’ sticky fingers (especially after eating ice cream cones).
The need for a constant stock of toys became obvious as the shows got larger and orders arrived daily from all over the nation. Requests were even coming in from England, Germany, and Australia. Victorbilt Toys was now traveling on the road to Chicago, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, Omaha, Rochester, and Minneapolis. Road trips meant a full load of toys in a covered pickup truck bed plus a large trailer. Toys were increasingly being built in larger quantities: 60 barns and 100 farm fences at a time. In order to expand production Barb retired from her 23-year job at 3M, and Vic retired from his 43-year career at Hach Chemical two years later. Both were putting in ten-hour days with help from a son and occasional assistance from a first grandson. The stress of long hours and four-day shows eventually took a toll, resulting in Barb’s heart attack. The options were hiring help or quitting. With a concern toward lowering quality standards and increasing insurance for additional employees, the couple opted to retire from toys as they had already done from their jobs. Upon hearing this news at a craft show, one long-time customer sat down and cried. A motor home was purchased by Vic and Barb -- and away they went. Woodworking, always too much fun to give up entirely, currently provides just gifts for friends and family.