In Unity, Ken Hall Makes Toys the Old-Fashioned Way
Ken and Mary Hall operate ‘‘Santa’s Workshop” in Unity, where he is an old-fashioned “maker and fixer of things.’’ (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Ken Hall walks from his shop to the store he and his wife operate in Unity. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Ken Hall uses a band saw to cut letters for a name sign at his shop. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Ken Hall works on finishing a wooden train set he made to sell in his Unity store. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Ken Hall is in the Santa business. Starting in April and continuing until Dec. 24, he makes toys, Christmas ornaments, stocking stuffers, wooden boxes, rocking chairs, stools and a miscellany of decorations that people stock up on at this time of year. He and his wife Mary sell them at their Christmas shop in Unity.
Hall is also The Sign Doctor, repairing and making the kinds of signs that adorn driveways, houses and patios and tell you who lives there: The Andersons, The Magoons, The Rices. He carves names out of wood, $2 per letter: Andrew, Tammy, Bob, Lori. He makes wooden “wishing” stars for children in cancer wards in Boston hospitals.
He’s the kind of person you often find in a small town: a jack-of-all-trades who has stitched together a living providing services that can’t be easily found at a mall or shopping center, a maker and fixer of things, a skill that used to be the bread-and-butter of American workers before outsourcing overseas.
On June 27, 2008, he took on an unaccustomed role: acting as honorary mayor of the town when Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, still in the thick of a primary fight for the Democratic nomination, brought their traveling road show to Unity (107 votes for Obama; 107 votes for Clinton), and Hall was there to introduce them. He’s in a clip that can be seen on YouTube. “I’m a lifelong Republican,” Hall says to laughter from the crowd. “I voted for McCain in the primary but maybe it’s time for me to change,” Hall continues, riffing on Obama’s campaign mantra, eliciting huge cheers.
“I asked the fellow why they picked me and he said they were going around the town asking, Who’s the mayor, who’s the mayor?” Hall recalled. Hall wasn’t the mayor, really, because the town is run by a select board, but around Unity he’s a figurehead of sorts.
“Our little town of 1,200 became a town of 7,000 that one day,” Mary Hall said. Reporters and camera crews from all over the world jammed into the town. “It was a hot day and boy, did we sell water,” said Ken Hall.
A nephew who lived in Japan at the time called his mother at 3 a.m. Eastern time to tell her, “Uncle Kenny’s on TV!” Hall even bought new sneakers for the occasion. He points to them, still on his feet, still in use. He’s got a broad, friendly face and sits on a stool, legs planted far apart. He’s in his woodshop in the basement of his home, where he spends a lot of time working and puttering. Mary writes out the orders that come in for custom work and puts them on his desk.
Hall grew up with five sisters and one brother in Cheshire, Conn. He liked working with wood as a kid and he and his brother built a chicken coop for themselves when he was 14. His grandfather owned a gas station in Milford, Conn., and from him Hall inherited a wooden cabinet with many drawers that he now uses for the small bolts, screws and assorted widgets that he needs to make and repair things.
For a man who just six weeks ago had a second pacemaker installed in his heart, he looks pretty lively. It’d been nine years since Hall, now 79, had the first one put in. He and Mary were smokers for many years but quit. Hall can’t remember the year, but he said, “I gave it up when it went to 25 cents a pack. How long ago was that?” Lucky Strikes were his brand: put a quarter in the machine, get two cents back.
The Halls bought their Unity property in 1970 so they could come up from Connecticut, where they lived, to go snowmobiling. He uses pine that he harvests on his property to make the signs and toys. A soft wood, pine isn’t as valued as much as such hard woods as cherry or maple, and using pine keeps the cost down for customers.
Hall used to have a wood shop in Cheshire, Conn., where he grew up. It was on the main road, and was half the size of his current woodshop, but when the state built a connector from I-84 to I-91, Hall said, “it went right through our store.”
Tired of the rat race, and tired also of their wandering way of life, which took them to malls, craft shows, camping shows and expositions throughout New England and down to Florida where they sold their wooden signs, the Halls moved to the Unity property in 1980, and opened the Christmas shop in 1997. The first $1 and $5 bills they made are taped to the wall behind the cash register.
At 79, might the Halls think about retirement? “I retired once,” Hall said. “I sat on the porch for 30 days and took a cruise and did all those things. But I gotta do something. And now it’s a necessity, we can’t just live on Social Security.” Mary Hall works part-time for the town as the treasurer. Neither wants to stop working.
“I’m not ready to be on the other side of the grass,” Hall said, pointing downward.
But nothing, not even Santa Claus, is recession-proof. The Halls saw a slowdown in business in 2008, after the financial crisis that nearly toppled the global economy. Four years later, business is still slow, which they attribute to the lingering recession.
So they are in the business of building a better mouse trap. Someone is in the market for boxes that can be hand painted and sold: Hall is on that. The wishing stars for children in Boston is a monthly order. His woodshop is filled with objects. “For a while every girl wanted to have her own hair dryer holder,” Hall said. Wooden bat, ball and mitt holders are perennial favorites.
But Hall is concerned about the generations to follow. “I worry about the kids who are younger,” Hall said. “Where are they going to be? But we’ll survive. We gotta do what we gotta do.”
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.