Toy story

Santa’s elves come to Ansonia Lumber each December bearing wooden toys they fashioned for underprivileged children throughout Darke County.

The 29th annual wooden toy contest will be Dec. 10, according to organizer Mitch McCabe, sales and marketing manager for the lumber company.

In 2021, woodworkers entered 27 projects for judging in adult and youth divisions. Scott Phillips, host of the popular PBS program American Woodshop, looks forward to judging the annual competition. Top entries are judged on precision, detail, craftsmanship, and “overall fun” of the toy. 

97-year-old Harry Niswonger shows off his Abrams tank (shown in detail in next image).

97-year-old Harry Niswonger shows off his Abrams tank (shown in detail in next image).

Judge Scott Phillips examining a wooden truck made by  Neal Pleiman of Osgood.
Harry Niswonger's Abrams tank.
Wooden plane
Cathy Liening (right, with her husband, Roger) took top honors in the contest’s adult division last year.

“This is like Christmas to me,” Phillips says. “People get so carried away with presents as the holiday season approaches. Those in need do not have the luxury of buying or receiving lots of gifts. These woodworkers — old and young alike — give of their time and talent to make sure some youngsters don’t go without a gift under the tree.”

According to McCabe, the lumber company started sponsoring the wooden toy contest in 1993 as a means of making sure underprivileged children received holiday gifts while giving area woodworkers an opportunity to showcase their handiwork. 

Winners receive tools or gift certificates, but no one goes home empty-handed. Frank Miller Lumber of Union City, Ind., sends home hardwood with each participant for the next contest. 

Arcanum resident Harry Niswonger has been entering handcrafted toys since the early 1990s — earning numerous awards in the process. The 97-year-old finished third last year with an Abrams tank that featured workable tread, a moving turret, and machine guns that swivel. 

Niswonger, like other contestants, says he doesn’t track the time he spends on contest entries. “If I knew the time involved, I might not start in the first place,” he says. 

Cathy Liening of Osgood, a member of Darke Rural Electric and a teacher by trade, swept top honors in the adult division with her unique American folk art entry last year. She created blocks depicting a circus Big Top, ringmaster, and exotic animals, and used woodburning for detail.

“There is no pattern,” she says. “It’s educational with numbers and words on the back of each piece.”

Her husband, Roger, also enjoys woodworking, and talent apparently runs in the family; grandsons Owen and Gavin Frey of Defiance took second-place honors in the youth division with their Plinko board.

Brad Lentz, a teacher from Rossburg, submitted a Connect Four gameboard. The Darke County Rural Electric member has been entering the past four years. His son, 11-year-old Max Lentz, seems to have inherited dad’s penchant for woodworking. He started three years ago using discarded wood for practice, and his colorful safari animals earned fourth place this time. “I look forward to the contest each year,” McCabe says. “It is so much fun seeing what these people come up with, and it’s all for a good cause.” 

For more information about Ansonia Lumber or the wood toy contest, visit or call McCabe at 937-337-3111. Phillips also posts contest details and photos online at