March of the toy soldiers
LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Jim Hillestad began collecting toy soldiers at the age of 10. This display case in his Toy Soldier Museum in Cresco, houses the first 600 pieces he collected by the time he graduated from high school.
Because he was such a good boy when his mother took him for his eye doctor appointment in Manhattan, young Jim Hillestad was allowed to select any toy he wanted at F.A.O. Schwarz, on Fifth Ave., New York City.
A troop of miniature Britains Ltd. Arabs of the Desert on horses held his heart hostage and they went home with him. A great love affair began which has spanned almost 70 years.
"This was before the heyday of television. Nothing interested me on the radio. I had much rather play with my toy soldiers."
He remembers fondly playing with his toy soldiers on Saturday mornings growing up.
"I had a fluffy bathrobe at the time. When I'd drop it on the floor of my bedroom, it became a range of mountains and my toy soldiers fought many a battle on it," Jim says.
He soon became a collector of toy soldiers. By the time he graduated from high school in Darien, Connecticut, his collection had grown to almost 600 miniatures.
Jim went off to college at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, majoring in history.
His parents made several moves over the next few years and Jim's toy soldier collection had been carefully packed up and made the moves with them.
After college graduation, Jim served in the United States Army Reserve from 1962-68. He then went to work on Wall Street, NY in banking.
In 1985 he was working in the World Trade Center North on the 83rd floor. His brother-in-law called and they made arrangements to meet for lunch. Jim asked him what he was doing in the city and was told that he was going to a toy soldier convention.
When Jim went home that day, for the first time in a long time, he thought, "Wow. Toy soldiers." And a flood of wonderful memories came marching back. He dug out his forgotten treasures and his interest in them was reawakened.
"Being in banking involved crazy hours and concerns. But my collection made all my cares melt away."
Jim retired in 1987. He and his fiance, Carol, later to become his wife, bought a house in Cresco in 1988 and moved in full-time in 1989. On land close to his house, he built a museum ... a 3,000-square-foot home for his toy soldiers, miniatures and military item collections.
The Toy Soldier Museum formally opened in 1991, which may be one of the largest collection of military miniatures in the country.
It is a museum that is free, open by appointment only and no children under 12 are allowed inside.
Nothing can quite prepare you for what awaits you when you open the door. You are assaulted with color. Lots and lots of color. The other thing is, much of his collection is English.
"I realized at an early age that England had the most colorful uniforms. That drew me in. They're also a very old country with a lot of years of battles and that appeals to my interest in history," he says.
Glass-encased lighted-shelf after shelf, reveals scores of troops of toy soldiers in various uniforms and stance. The miniatures are about 2 1/2 inches tall. All are made of metal and all are hand-painted.
Besides his more than 35,000 miniatures, Jim has acquired over 70 Victorian and Edwardian era British uniforms all displayed on mannequins.
Campaign medals, commemorative porcelain figurines and a large collection of brass shell hand-painted English Army military drums, each an amazing work of art are featured items.
And Jim does still "play" with his toy soldiers. He makes dioramas to recreate historical events and battles and photographs them. He uses the dioramas to write articles for two international magazines, "The Standard" and "Model Toy Soldier Figure Magazine." The title of his articles are, "Footnotes to History."
Some of his dioramas are on display across the country.
Four of his dioramas that display the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, are in the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg.
One of his dioramas was at the Franklin Institute for six months when the King Tut exhibition was there.
Several Pocono Mountain resorts have Jim's dioramas on display.
In 1989, one of his displays was the focus in a Bloomingdale's window for the well-known British clothier, Gieves & Hawkes. The scene was of a British officer's study. After he retired to bed, toy soldiers came marching out of a box ... every little boy's dream come true.
He has met Malcolm Forbes and Jonathan Winters through his interest. Collecting toy soldiers has been a passion of other many notables such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, to name just a few.
Not all of Jim's miniature displays are toy soldiers. He has several that depicts civilian scenes during the Victorian and Edwardian periods in English life, such as the Salvation Army, a buggy factory, a circus, a zoo, playing croquet on the lawn of an English estate.
Many scenes take place in front of Buckingham Palace such as an outing of the Queen Mother, Princess Di, Prince William and Prince Harry in a carriage. Another outdoor scene depicts a Dickens' Christmas in London. Some other scenes are of Tuileries Gardens in 1908's Paris, a Yorkshire flea market, the 1903 Coronation Durbar Delhi, a large one of the 1900 Relief of Kabul Chitral Expedition, and the HMS Britannia complete with toy sailors.
"I enjoy it. It gives me stimulation and I get to meet a lot of interesting people, afficionados and those involved in the manufacturing of the miniatures," he says.
"The challenge of today is to get young people involved in miniatures and history. Through staging a battle, one can see history in three dimension," he says.
While his daughter and son never quite shared his passion, he is thrilled that two grandsons of his five grandchildren do and they derive great pleasure in recreating battles with his toy soldiers together.
When asked "Why toy soldiers," Jim responds with, "Why not? Psychologists have said that most of the social and intellectual skills we need to succeed in life and work are first developed in childhood play. Watching TV, playing on the computer or hand-held devices, sitting in the car being shuttled around town, are not conducive to a child's development. Kids need unstructured, open ended play. There's no imagination. No 'pretend' anymore. Toy soldiers provide an imaginative and creative environment that stimulates cognitive development."
It also can bring history alive, for anyone of any age.
You are invited to The Toy Soldier Museum's Open House on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 5459 Paradise Valley Rd., Cresco. For directions, visit the website at www.the-toy-soldier.com. You can contact Jim at email@example.com, 570-629-7227.