Christmas memories preserved for Michael Murray in toy collection

By Brice Stump
Posted 12/21/22

As a vintage Lionel train hummed and clickety-clacks its way around a fantasy village, Michael Murray slips in a comfortable, well-worn chair, watching as it leaves a trail of memories.

In his …

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Christmas memories preserved for Michael Murray in toy collection


As a vintage Lionel train hummed and clickety-clacks its way around a fantasy village, Michael Murray slips in a comfortable, well-worn chair, watching as it leaves a trail of memories.

In his lap, snuggled close to his warm belly is Mr. Beasley, his chestnut-colored Dachshund of 12 years. With ears alert, his dark brown eyes follow the syncopated mechanical lullaby.

Village lights twinkle as the train endlessly loops around and through a collection of houses and commercial buildings set up in the middle of the room.

It is so large, the train layout display gobbles up so much room, there’s just a couple of feet between it and the walls. Along the walls are shelves displaying hundreds of toys of yesterday to delight the eye and tease the imagination.

There are trains, trucks, cars by the hundreds, themed cookie jars, TV character dolls and figurines, Hot Wheels and Matchbox collectibles.

Buddy L trucks, toy metal farm implements, wooden pedal cars and display cases of automobilia, are all neatly arranged on shelves. It is an explosion of toys, toys, toys.

It is a room stuffed with treasures of his youth and the fun times of collecting as an adult. Each item holds a story of adventure, discovery and acquisition. Yesterday doesn't seem too far away, he said, after all there are thousands of collectibles here that are a direct link to moments in his life that once were. Here, Murray has managed to save 60 years of Christmas memories.

Slowly he turns to look around the room, from ceiling to floor, Murray finds so many things to smile about, and family pieces that make for misty eyes. That is the power of these toy treasures, to instantly bring back fond yesterdays and memories of Christmases past that grow kinder and gentler as the years slip by ever so quickly.

During the holidays, the collection becomes especially comforting, with all its memories in plastic wood and metal. These toys come alive in a sense he said, when friends bring their children and grandchildren into the room. The instant little hands and fingers touch the toys of his past, he said, they become magical.

“Children have been the priority of my life and every time I see that movie Polar Express, with trains and kids,it’s a perfect blend of the things I hold most dear in my life,” he said.

Murray, 64, is a retired educator and teacher with 35 years of service in special education. He was vice principal and then Principal of the Howard T. Ennis School and Richard Allen School in Georgetown. After retiring he was a substitute teacher for two years.

“I just stepped down after five years on the Wicomico County School Board, and served the last two years as vice president. That gave me

42 years working with children, and I loved it,” he said. “I’ve always loved children and watching them learn. I pursued the field of education and have no regrets.”

It is an inherited love, as his late mother, Elizabeth, was an educator for 40 years in Wicomico County. “What I really enjoy about my collection is sharing it, particularly with children under 10.

These things aren't about today’s technology, but they still can delight and entertain children as they always have. I encourage them to touch and play with these toys, after all, that’s what they are for.”

With a key Murray winds up an all-metal 1940s Ferris wheel that’s the focal point of his train display.

For children, it’s always a strange and exciting procedure. Not only have they not seen a large toy key, they've never seen a toy that has to be wound up. As the wheel turns, a concealed music box creates a carnival ambience. No computer animation, no digital images and no support apps. For children, it’s a delightful marvel beyond phone and computer screens. It is simply the real thing. What was once old, is now new again.

Murray reviles in their sense of discovery and awe.

At age two, he was given his first electric Lionel train set. His father, George, and his uncle, John Smith built the train platform and placed the family Christmas tree in its center and from there the magical train traveled on its circular route.

Beyond the lure of trains came Tonka Trucks, and metal farm implements inspired by a family of farmers.

As the years and Christmas came and went, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts kept buying Murray more and more toy treasures and the collection steadily grew.

“I’m fortunate that my mother and father kept original boxes and packed my toys safely away as I got older,” he said.

“As I grew, 'I bloomed into toys,’ ” he said with a smile.

Blooming is an understatement. He was so enamored with these miniature wonders that by the time he was in his 20s, Murray was shopping at the annual Detroit and Toledo toy shows as well as displaying and selling.

He still attends the annual York Toy Show in Pennsylvania, a tradition he continues after almost 40 years.

As the years passed, he broadened his interest in collecting.

There was a fascination with metal Corgi model cars, trucks and tractors toys made in England. He owns most of their original catalogs.

And like a parent, Murray says there is no favorite toy. “I love them all. Enjoy them all.”

His hundreds of “promo cars” do have a peculiar never ending appeal.

“I really started collecting when I was just five years old. with ‘promotional model cars.’ Car dealers used to give them out to customers, and especially children, when the family was looking to buy a car. A lot of these came from Culver Oldsmobile in Salisbury. They are 1/25th scale replicas, and promoted the newest car on the showroom floor.”

Though made of plastic, they look convincingly like metal. In a vertical display case with a mirrored back, shelf after shelf of colored cars make an exciting, visual statement and dazzle the eye.

“I relate to the promotional models because I've always been a car fanatic. I always wanted to own my own automobile dealership agency in Salisbury but it wasn’t feasible financially,” he said in a soft voice.

In place of his dream coming true, the shelves are stuffed with these “dream cars” cars in all colors and styles. It’s his miniature dealership.

Like a true dyed-in-the-wool collector, Murray is always just one special acquisition away from ceasing to collect. He knows he’s at the cusp of exceeding more than 3,000 items, new and used. Looking back even he can’t believe how collecting became an inescapable vortex. He figures he has in excess of 700 promotional model cars alone.

All this could have been history had he heeded the words of his grandfather.

“One day my grandfather Murray said to me, ‘Son, you need to stop collecting those model cars, you’re becoming a man now. That’s for children.’ He was a tough man. I often remember those words, and share that memory with friends. I just wonder if he knew just how valuable they became if he would say that to me again. He wouldn't believe it. As I grew older, my parents weren't as supportive, either, about me collecting,” he said.

Then, as a teenager, there was the lore of TV shows such as I Love Lucy, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Bonanza. He delved into collecting Lucille Ball related pieces.

The variety includes a three-tier cake cookie jar, dolls, photos, clocks, Lucy Christmas show memorabilia.

Murray’s even a member of the Lucille Ball Museum in Jamestown, N.Y.

Yet the core focus of his interest has been cars or trains.

Like many seasoned collectors, Murray “wheels and deals” certain pieces that he has duplicates of, or wants to “trade up,” to the next must-have items. “Years ago I sold at auction some of the 3,000 promotional cars I had before eBay came along.”

Some of the treasured items aren’t toys at all. A large Tonka Truck advertising sign, several feet wide, is Murray’s connection to a former retail icon of Salisbury. “It was in Tubman’s, in the 1960s, which sold only toys,” he said. “They were located on South Salisbury Boulevard, across from the old English Grill site.” The Tonka sign is a true advertising piece, but Murray also found himself drawn to “toy size” versions.

“General motor product signs, made of plastic, once sold for about $10 each. In 1978, they started selling scaled sizes to match models,” he said.” I bought two and that was a lot of money for me in those days.”

Murray has them all now — well, almost all.

“They made signs for Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, Pontiac, Cadillac and GMC trucks. I’m missing one— Cadillac. It might fetch $500 today.

I’ve looked for years to find one. It was a limited production model.”

Some items that look like toys now weren’t originally sold as such. In small display cases are “automobilia,” links to businesses on the Shore that have come and gone, little history trinkets that conjure up exciting memories of new cars, captivating auto showrooms, and automotive works of art in steel, rubber and glass.

Collecting isn’t reserved just for models. He owns five “real deal” versions. “I have five 1964 Pontiac Catalina Two Plus Two, all original; a 1966 Pontiac Catalina, also all original except a paint job 30 years ago; 1991 Mercury Grand Marquis Wagon, and a 1978 Ford pickup purchased from the original owner. Recently I flew to Florida and bought a 2000 burgundy Mustang GT convertible with 39,000 miles.

That’s my ‘fun car’ to drive.”

Those cars he couldn't get or afford are now enjoyed as promotional models.

Toys, like top of the line period furniture, paintings and other collectibles, have been hit hard when the bottom fell out of the market several years ago.

But toys are also immune in some aspects. The sentimental value of certain pieces in a collection, simply don't depreciate as seen by owners. It’s an illusion, but if you really love an item, money truly is not a factor of its worth in some hearts. Trains in particular have lost significant value. In addition to changing times, Murray said, it’s the introduction of modern trains with technologically superior realism that has played a role in devaluation of “old timey” trains.

Antique, or just “vintage’ toys, his collection draws an audience.

A few weeks ago, 68 adults taking part in a bus tour of the Eastern Shore paid him a visit.

Murray, former president of the Eastern Shore Antique Automobile Club, and now director of the Pontiac Club of the Central East Coast of the United States, said the group were members of the Keystone Pontiac-Oakland GMC Club of Pennsylvania. He serves as scholarship chairperson for the Pontiac-Oakland GMC Club International.

“I’m not aware of anyone around here having a collection like this. It certainly bothers me to realize at some point I have to “down size.”

I’ve tried to donate a lot of them, but those who would appreciate them already have acquired collections through numerous bequests. But there are organizations in this area that would like certain elements, like just the trains, or just the toys, and I hope to share what I have with them.”

In the end, he wants to transform his unique collection into scholarships and endowments. Maybe even sponsor some trips to Europe for some students.

He is hopeful that he could have a small building dedicated to his collection where the public could visit and so all these toys and automobilia of yesterday.

“I love anything that has wheels on it,” he said with a smile.. “One of my Christmas trees is decorated with the theme “wheels in transportation.”

It features all Hallmark items, a collection which began in 1980 when Hallmark introduced a 1958 Corvette model, followed by more cars, fire engines, planes, trucks, and tractors and trains.

To this day, when he puts up his usual seven holiday trees, at least one has a train set. Some are decorated with Hallmark “Norman Rockwell Cameo,” collectibles acquired by his mother.

In today’s world, where so much seems to be going so wrong, in this quiet room where the good old days haven't faded, there’s peace, civility and kindness. Here everything is right with the world again.

“If I have ‘one of those days.’ where I just want to get home and relax, I take a seat in my recliner, turn on the Lionel trains and watch them pass through lighted villages.” The lullaby of moving hypnotically syncopated wheels on tracks soon dissipates the stress, the low notes of the day. “I admit, just walking onto that room brings me instant relaxation.”

Here everything is right with the world again.

Alone, with just Mr. Beasley, Murray can close his eyes and be part of yesterday once more.

The lyrics of Toyland seems especially appropriate:

“As gray-haired grown-ups do

And seek once more

Its phantom shore

The land your childhood knew

Once you pass its borders, you can ne'er return again.”

This is his magical Toyland, and it’s also a room where it is always Christmas.

Come December, Murray discovered years ago, the days of his youth return, like the smell of sweet pine and cedar in the air, these lightly used, very much loved toys are evidence that the past was all so real, once upon a time.

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