Old toys never die in Eltham; they just get set in concrete.
That's what has happened to thousands of wee playthings at Bridger Park in the central Taranaki town.
There, visitors can see the 20-metre-long Children's Toy Wall, which looks like a giant assemblage by Taranaki artist Dale Copeland.
But it's not.
While as wacky as Dale's quirky works, the wall was formed by Fay Young, a camera-shy woman who denied being an artist.
This was gleaned during a visit to the wall in 1998, when Fay, happy to talk with visiting children, refused to be interviewed.
While as tight as a rose bud around reporters, she blossomed as tour guide for the wonder-filled youngsters. She uncrossed her arms to point out features of fancy, her face and eyes as animated as the cartoon beings wedged in the wall.
'Grew like Topsy'
Look closely to see a chipmunk baring plastic teeth at a clown; Cinderella's lost her head; Bart Simpson teeters on the ledge of a cliff; Snoopy's looking down.
Ninja Turtles, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, a haunted house - all these childhood memories have been savoured and saved by Fay.
This bizarre but beautiful artwork began in 1997, when Fay found a child's toy car on the ground outside her home. She popped it atop a concrete wall for the child to find, but when the unclaimed toy kept falling off, she cemented it on.
After that, other children asked her to add their toys to the wall.
"It just grew like Topsy," Fay told the Stratford Press in a rare interview given in 1999.
However, she declined to be photographed, saying the wall belonged to the children not her. "Every toy tells a story and is well loved," she is quoted as saying.
Ashes to ashes
A picture of Fay now graces the roof of a dolls-house-sized church built in bushes behind the wall. Inside is an urn holding her ashes.
Fay died on 6 April 2000, aged 77.
She left the house and toy wall to the South Taranaki District Council. When approached by the Eltham Lions Club and Eltham Community Board, the council negotiated a way for the Lions to have ownership on behalf of the community while still meeting Fay's wishes.
Then president, Alan Jamieson, says the Taranaki Electricity Trust (TET) donated half the amount, a grant came from the Lloyd Morgan Lions Club Charitable Trust and the district council gifted the rest.
Alan says the Lions club is honouring Fay's wish that the home be used for pensioner housing. "Lions are not normally into property," he says. "We are not in the game of making money, but as soon as we get it, we give it away to the needy."
This outcome also meant the toy wall was preserved. "We were scared the wall would go, or someone would get in there (the house) and think 'No, we don't need it'. Eltham doesn't have a lot of icons," Alan says.
At the handing over of the wall on 14 October 2000, James Young described his mother as a ‘very giving person and a rare gift from heaven’.
At the same ceremony, Eltham Community Board chairperson Karen Christian spoke about Fay, known by many in the town because of her years spent working in Jack Stark's grocery store.
"The respect that the community holds for Fay meant that Fay was nominated for a citizens' award twice in the same year," Karen says. "She declined the award. She wrote in a letter that the pleasure of living above Bridger Park, with its line of flowering golden kowhai next to the stream, was reward enough."
A generous soul
Karen says that even before the wall began, Fay gave pleasure to others with acts of simple generosity. "She developed her garden as an extension of the park and the wishing well drew people in. She would leave secateurs out so that people could come and cut flowers from her garden to take home with them."
Later it was the toy wall that drew people to Fay's place. "The wall became a real tourist attraction bringing visitors of all ages," Karen says.
"Fay enjoyed people and was never too busy to spend time and say a kind word to those who came to the wall."
Vandals attack wall
While the Lions have been entrusted with the upkeep of the wall, club members have been unable to prevent vandalism - even with someone living in the pensioner house.
The wall now looks battered, tattered as an old teddy bear, from vandals smashing glass cases made for special exhibits.
One of those gone is the Statue of Liberty, sent to Fay by an ex-Eltham man. He visited the wall during a trip home and on his return to New York mailed a miniature of the torch-wielding woman back to Fay.
Lions Club member Don Drabble is horrified by the damage. "All the major displays have been smashed to smithereens. We don't know what to do about it. I just don't understand the kids these days."
Kids come back
Alan Jamieson hopes the vandalism will stop if children have a stake in the wall.
"We have just had a group of school kids come along with toys," he says.
The Eltham Primary School youngsters helped cement their old playthings into place. "We are trying to get some pride back," Alan says. "We thought 'Let's give the new kids the ownership', so that's what we are trying to do."
While some of the main wall has been damaged, the miniature village behind it remains untouched. This includes Fay's church, a nearby fairy castle and haunted house, all made by retired builder Wilf Bennett.
The Eltham man also built Fay's house after her marriage broke up in the 1980s.
"The wishing well was already there, those stone walls were already there - she had done all that work," Wilf says. "She was a great person to get down and do things. She was not hesitant in getting things done or getting someone to do them for her."
With trowel in hand and wet cement at the ready, Fay eventually turned to plastic fantastics.
"Kids and adults would bring unwanted toys and that's how it grew - and it did grow," Wilf says.
Fay captures our childhood
The result is a history of animated films as told through freebies in fast-food kids' packs. Stars from Snow White; Cinderella; Lady and the Tramp; Lion King; 101 Dalmatians (just a couple, not the whole litter); A Bug's Life; Beauty and the Beast; and Toy Story are all there.
Also embedded forever (hopefully) are Sesame Street characters, Smurfs, Cabbage Patch Kids, Barney, marbles, trolls, spaceships, frogs, the alphabet in white letters, heroes and villains, princesses and dragons, Transformer robots, the Flintstones, car logos and the classic primary yellow rubber ducky.
This long list barely covers this memorial to childhood. For youngsters the wall triggers innocent awe and instant recognition: ‘Look, there's Buzz (Lightyear)!’
While for adults it's a place to remember 1960s' cartoon characters, Saturday afternoons at the ‘flicks’, matchbox toys and Sunday evenings watching the Disney castle deliver Old Yeller and other family movies.
In Eltham, you can glimpse Fantasyland for free - and even add a touch of your own childhood.
First published on 6 July 2004
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