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The Misfit Toymaker

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



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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.

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