Monday, November 12, 2007

The Sturdy Little Red Wagon

Growing up during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s many times a young boy improvised with self-made toys including kites made from newspapers, sling shots made from a forked tree branch and the rubber from an inner tube off an automobile tire, bows and arrows or a fort made from small tree saplings. However when birthdays and Christmas passed around, finding store-bought toys wrapped in pretty birthday paper or waking at dawn and running to the living room and finding toys under the Christmas tree left by Santa brought much excitement.

Some of my favorite store-bought Christmas and birthday gifts from childhood included a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun (and yes, like little Ralphie’s mom in the movie, A Christmas Story, my mom protested to high heaven over that particular gift, insisting to no avail that I would shoot my eye out), a Davy Crocket coonskin cap, and a pocket transistor radio. However, my most memorable toy received from childhood was a shiny new red Radio Flyer wagon (photo above).

My brother and I shared the Radio Flyer and that little red wagon was the source for many wild adventures in the hills and hollows of Itawamba County. From western wagon trains to World War II soldiers and race car drivers, that sturdy little Radio Flyer provided the catalyst for a rural youngster’s vivid imagination. Besides being a favorite toy, the wagon was also used for household moving chores. I remember once my mom using it to haul canned fruits and vegetables from the storm cellar. That little red wagon literally lasted for years and years and served a dual purpose of both a play toy and a pull-wagon for moving household items around.

An American Icon

The Radio Flyer has a rich history and heritage spanning 90 years and is the story of an Italian immigrant coming to the shores of America – the land of opportunity, simply following the great American dream. Antonio Pasin was a sixteen year old living in northern Italy. He longed to leave his town to make a new start in life in America. His family backed his dream, selling their family mule to raise the funds for Antonio's journey.

According to records at Ellis Island, Antonio left his home near Venice in Italy sailing on the ship Cleveland from the port of Naples. On April 19, 1914, the ship arrived at Ellis Island carrying the young Pasin. With only $30 in his pockets, Antonio left New York and headed for Chicago.

In Chicago, coming from generations of woodworkers in Italy, Antonio hoped to find employment as a cabinet maker, but at first could only find unskilled work as a water boy for a sewer digging crew. Finally he found a job finishing pianos in a piano factory that made use of his skills. After three years he had saved enough money to buy his own wood working tools and he then rented a room for a shop in Chicago’s Northwest Side.

In the evenings, Antonio worked alone in the one-room shop, crafting children's wooden wagons and during the day, he would walk the city streets peddling his samples from a suitcase. During 1923 his wagon business had grown enough that he was able to hire helpers and he incorporated the business as the Liberty Coaster Company – named for the towering Statue of Liberty that greeted him in 1914 upon entering New York harbor.

By the late 1920’s, Pasin had refitted his factory for metal stamping, and the Liberty Coaster Company began manufacturing stamped steel wagons. He named a 1927 model the 'Radio Flyer,' capturing the excitement of the new and growing radio industry and the wonders of flight. By 1930, his company operated under the new name of Radio Steel & Manufacturing, and was already the world's largest producer of coaster wagons. Even through The Great Depression, Radio Steel & Manufacturing was producing a massive quantity of wagons on a daily basis and during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the Radio Flyer exhibit was a definite hit. And the rest is history.

The Radio Flyer has been more than just a favorite toy for generations of American children. It is truly an American icon and the story of a young 16 year old immigrant coming to America through the doors of Ellis Island with not much more than a dream in his heart and a strong-willed determination. And with hard work and that solid determination, his dream was fulfilled.


The Offical Radio Flyer Site Radio Flyer Entry
The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.

Photograph by Cleveland Franks, 1957


Janice said...

This is a wonderful story. And isn't it amazing how easily amused we were back then. Give a kid a red wagon and a coon skin cap these days, and I wonder what he/she'd do?


Anonymous said...

I loved your story. My father worked at Radio Steel in Chicago since the 1940's. He retired from there and recently passed away. The little red wagon will always be dear to my heart.