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The Misfit Toymaker

Chuck Sword crafts the toys of big boys' dreams -- and chases a big dream of his own



Most folks wouldn't waste two glances at the row of shambling, low-slung buildings on Karl Street in Berea — just door after nondescript door looking out on a vast weed-strewn field.

But behind one of those doors lies not a tangle of cubicles, but shelf upon shelf piled with boxes, plus the occasional display that reveals the contents of those endless boxes: gloriously detailed miniature trucks and cranes and tractors, emergency vehicles and tankers and log loaders, plows and dump trucks and strip-mine excavators.

A museum-style vitrine shows off a Komatsu power-mining shovel, its jaws dripping with a load of gravel. Tiny figures and orange barrels create the illusion of a functioning work site. In the back room, there's a 1:4 scale model of a bright yellow John Deere tractor that's the size of a compact car. There's a replica of an enormous Bucyrus earthmover, with every detail exact, right down to each instrument inside the cab.

Everywhere you turn, there are scale models of heavy construction equipment and trucks — the bulldozers and steam shovels, haulers and compactors a veritable paean to former Rust Belt manufacturing glory. The names on them are familiar to anyone who's had even a passing fascination with construction, manufacturing, or shipping: Mack, Peterbilt, Manitowac, Deere, International Harvester, Volvo, Kenworth.

And the price tags — a few hundred dollars to thousands — make it clear these aren't hobby-shop trinkets for kids. They are toys for grown boys who indulge in their dreams of decades past. DHS Diecast, a 12-year-old Northeast Ohio company, caters to those dreams.

Chuck Sword is a chubby, amiable man of 48 who looks like the kind of guy you'd find watching the Browns game on the next barstool over at the neighborhood saloon. The founder and CEO of DHS ambles through his 12,000-square-foot domain, cheerfully pointing out wheels that spin, cranes that swing, and shovels that scoop.

DHS is one of just three such companies in the U.S.; Sword guesses there may be ten of them worldwide. The company boasts some 20,000 regular customers — mostly collectors, as well as some dealers and equipment manufacturers who crave the mini-models for display or for gifts.

"We don't sell cars. We don't sell NASCAR. We don't do airplanes," he says. "Too many other people do that. We're the biggest player in a niche market. We're a well-kept secret."

And Sword has another secret: plans to erect an interactive museum honoring Northeast Ohio's rich history of vehicle and heavy equipment manufacturing. It's a dream he stokes with a handful of friends, and one that — like the models he designs in his modest shop — is finally making its way off the drawing board.

A computer geek with a degree from the University of Toledo, Chuck Sword started his career with local jeweler J.B. Robinson, for whom he developed an early PC-based cash-register system. By the mid-1980s, he expanded the technology as a partner in another company. When that firm was sold in 1999, Sword cashed out and went hunting for a new passion.

"I started looking around for something else to do," he says. "I wasn't rich and I couldn't retire, but I had a little bit of money."

It was his son Zach, then six years old, who inadvertently introduced him to the arcane world of construction-model collectors.

"We had to stop at every construction site," Sword recalls. "He was fascinated. One time he was driving around in one of those little Flintstones cars in our driveway, and he disappeared. We found him around the corner, watching guys working on a sewer."

Sword went online looking for models for his son and stumbled upon Dave's Model Toys of North Royalton, which specialized in construction equipment. The aging owner was a retired fireman who ran the business out of the back of a heating and cooling shop, and he wanted to sell. So Sword bought him out.

The new owner opened his own 400-square-foot office in Berea and hired his retired father-in-law to run it by day while he packed boxes by night. A year later, a call came in from an acquaintance who ran Hiram Construction Models out of his basement.

"Do you have any money left?" the man asked. "Do you want to buy me out?" Sword did.

A year after that, Sword snapped up the U.S. distributorship for British-made Smith Models, a manufacturer of American truck models. And with that, DHS — short for "Dave's, Hiram, and Smith" — was born.

The 3,500 different models stocked in DHS' warehouse are made all over the world, from China to the United States. Sword isn't sure how many they sell in a year, and he declines to provide the company's annual revenue, although he offers that the average sale is a relatively modest $150 — a far cry from the $8,000 he fetches for a Bucyrus earthmover. That's because while most of the models are intricate, delicate constructions you'd want to keep far away from sticky young hands, DHS also stocks less expensive ones for kids who get the "buy me" bug at the company's annual family-oriented open houses in July. At one point, Zach, now a 19-year-old apprentice union carpenter, was dubbed "vice president of development" to create a line of kids' toys.

Indeed, DHS is a family affair; its five full-time employees include Sword and his two sisters. The staff expands during busy season — now through January — and again come open-house time.

DHS serves a coterie of collectors more obscure than the usual model-car and toy train enthusiasts everyone knows a couple of. They order from all over the world — many of them online or by mail, and many more at the auctions Sword holds periodically in Berea. The car-sized John Deere tractor was purchased by a Virginia man who owns not a grand estate, but an average house with a modest yard. He knew he had to have that John Deere; he just has no place to store it yet.

Most collectors are middle-aged men or older, some of whom had once operated the equipment in a former life and now crave models for nostalgia's sake.

Paul Wortel, a retired electrician and construction worker from the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights, was one of those kids — and a lifelong model hobbyist.

"I started with trains, then got into die-cast cars," he recalls. "I've collected World War II warships, high-tech cars and airplanes, you name it. Now I've got a tractor fetish. Construction trucks, cranes — I have a lot of mobile cranes. Chuck builds some of the best. I'm a detail freak, and he puts out an excellent product."

Wortel figures he's got about 500 to 600 models in his basement. He's sold many times more than that, giving up old models to buy new ones. "I'm a nutcase," he confesses. "Just ask Chuck, he'll tell you. I've been married over 50 years, and I don't know how my wife puts up with me and my toys."

That's a common theme echoed by collectors.

"We were at a show in Las Vegas last year," says Gary Peterson, who works for an Oregon company whose models Sword distributes. "There was a group of guys there, exchanging ideas about how to hide their passion from their wives: secret bank accounts, separate credit cards. I suggested we start a forum on how to hide your purchases from your wives."

Peterson and others concede that their modeling passion is shared by roughly 0 percent of the female population, give or take.

While DHS sells the creations of other companies, Sword's true passion is in designing models of his own.

It started five years ago, with a license from Peterbilt to make a replica of one of their trucks. Then he tracked down Rogers Trailers of Pennsylvania, where they make a trailer he added to the setup.

"We made 2,000, and they sold out in two months," says Sword. "We said, 'Maybe we're onto something.'"

Sword's own line — known simply as Sword Models — now includes some 35 different models, each of them designed and engineered locally and manufactured in China.

Sword's creations generally mimic American-made trucks, though he tries to find a local connection for each one, painting them in the colors and logos of area companies — such as All Crane, a rental company in Independence, or Tesar Industrial Contractors on Jennings Road. "Whenever we can find a connection, we'd much rather do a local company," he says.

He starts by taking thousands of pictures, shooting each vehicle from every conceivable angle. He recalls a tractor-trailer combo that he and a colleague went to Virginia to shoot in a snowstorm. The process, he says, is grueling, each vehicle requiring as much as a year of development.

"The model has to be just right," he says. "These collectors know the equipment, and no matter what we make, they'll find something wrong. We have to show them pictures to prove it's right."

Sword's latest project is a nod to Cleveland's industrial past: a 29-inch-tall replica of the famous Hulett unloader, developed and manufactured in Northeast Ohio in the late 19th century and once used all over the Great Lakes to unload ore from passing ships. Four of the last six in existence stood guard on Cleveland's Whiskey Island until they were dismantled in 2000; two of them remain in pieces in the grass there to this day.

"The Huletts were an iconic Cleveland landmark — monsters on the lakefront for years," Sword says. "It's a real piece of Cleveland industrial art."

Each of Sword's unloaders will sell for $5,000, and all of the proceeds above the $2,500 manufacturing cost will fuel his ultimate dream.

Over the last decade, many of Sword's customers have become good friends. He was having lunch with six of them one day about five years ago when conversation turned to just how many vehicles had been or are still being made in Ohio. Their talk led to an idea for an interactive transportation showplace they've dubbed "Celebrating America on the Move."

"There's a lot of history there, and someone said, 'We should tell people about this,'" Sword remembers.

Among his companions that day were Northeast Ohioans John Shephard and Steve Wolken, retirees who began collecting as toy-train hobbyists in the 1950s. Shephard was in the army in Europe in 1954 when he fell in love with German locomotives. His collection of more than 200 model trains now resides in the Medina Toy and Train Museum, located on the town square in the Cleveland suburb.

Wolken built model trains with his dad as a boy in Pittsburgh, then gave them away as his interests veered in other directions. When his wife died 15 years ago, Wolken jumped back into collecting, starting with construction equipment to enhance his train setups. He stopped in at DHS one day and discovered he knew Sword from years back: The two had been competitors when Sword was in the software business.

Shephard and Wolken jumped on the idea of the transportation museum and emerged as the project's leaders, along with Sword and his father. They began researching museums around the country. They joined the American Museum Association, and Shephard attended sessions on building museums in Washington, D.C. They've considered creating a preview center in downtown Cleveland to attract donors and sponsors, but decided that the estimated cost — upwards of $9 million — would be better spent on the museum itself.

Eventually, they hit upon the short-term plan of creating a mobile unit, which could visit schools and special events at a fraction of the cost of a downtown visitor center. So they began to raise money through sales of Sword's Hulett models. They hope to have it operational by 2012.

Ultimately, their vision is less about a static museum than a hands-on attraction that immerses visitors in the world of transportation — everything from bicycles to airplanes. They want to celebrate the Great Lakes region's manufacturing past as well as its present — the hundreds of companies that still make transportation-related equipment and parts here.

And their enthusiasm is infectious.

"We're going to display vintage vehicles: trucks, airplanes — anything we can get our hands on," says Shephard. "We're going to tell the story about when they were conceived, where they were built. We're going to surround those items with memorabilia from the same period. For instance, a '50s automobile will be surrounded by mannequins on roller skates delivering food to your car on a tray. It's not going to be a museum — it's going to be an experience."

"Our tagline, is 'If it wasn't made in Ohio, it probably wasn't made,'" he says, only half-jokingly.

The trio are realistic but optimistic about what they see as a $100 million project. They've only just begun contacting government officials and are putting together a presentation for local corporations they hope to involve — among them GE, Lincoln Electric, Lubrizol, and Eaton. With the resources of other institutions, they hope to provide constantly changing displays of vehicles.

"We know it's going to be a long-term thing, an uphill climb," says Sword. "But everything the nation is built on, much of it started here. We want to preserve that history and to say we're moving forward. We need to bring back the concept that we can make things here. We did it before, and we can do it again. We think we can tell a story no one else has told."

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