We all know Santa doesn’t need toy stores. He has his elves make all his toys for him, and he pays them generously in cakes and candies and other things elves like. He even offers his elves a 401(k) plan – the “k” stands for Klaus.
Normal people like you and I can’t afford to employ a large roster of elves, but that’s quite alright. We get to visit Lark Toys in Kellogg, Minnesota instead, a place that is second only to Santa’s workshop in terms of pure wonder.
“Lark Toys first opened in the early 1980s when two school teachers began making their own wooden pull toys and puzzles to ship to retailers across the country,” said Miranda Gray-Burlingame. “My family decided to run a business together after I nearly died in childbirth, which made us realize how precious our time with each other really is. I had been aware of Lark Toys ever since I went to college in nearby Winona, so when I found out it was for sale I knew it would make the perfect opportunity to share our lives together.”
The Gray family bought Lark Toys in 2008. Together they have maintained it as Kellogg’s preeminent tourist attraction and the finest toy store in Minnesota, as well as added an event space they call “The Happiness.”
Toys have naturally remained Lark Toys’ focus. Miranda’s husband Scott aids in the design of heirloom quality toys – the kind that don’t need batteries or explode into plastic shrapnel when you step on them. Lark Toys’ timeless pull toy designs include giraffes, dragons, owls, turtles, ducks, pigs, canoe paddlers, and of course the requisite two monkeys riding a banana, all with whimsical wood burned facial expressions. (On occasion they are called upon to repair some of these playthings that have had unfortunate run-ins with chew-happy family dogs.)
As part of their effort to include all in the merriment, Lark Toys also creates unique wheelchair pull toys. These are named Michael, after one of their young customers from Red Wing, and Judy after famed disability rights activist Judith Heumann. “We really love honoring people with the toys we make, and were thrilled when Michael and Judith consented to our naming toys after them,” said Kathy Gray, Miranda’s mother.
It’s easy to get lost in a store that encompasses over 20 thousand feet. In addition to their own pull toys and colorful blocks, Lark Toys is replete with things that delight children. Most of Lark Toys’ wares don’t require batteries. This is good, because I’d rather be hanged by my thumbs than have to listen to my niece’s Fisher-Price doodad sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in its saccharine, tinny voice even one more time. Lark Toys’ lovely book section is filled with classics by greats like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.
But it’s so much more than just toys. At the candy shop you will find a wide selection of treats elves would approve of, including melt-in-your-mouth fudge that demonstrates God’s reason for inventing walnuts. Around Lark Toys’ indoor carousel race fantastic hand carved beasts. A petulant pink hog tries to buck a gnome off his back. A wizard looks calmly onward as he perches upon the neck of a long-whiskered dragon. This is the most beautiful merry-go-round in the state, and it’s free to ride if you’re 90 or older.
Just outside is a full 18-hole miniature golf course, with two great thundering waterfalls as blue as stained glass. A chorus of frogs peeps in the nearby pond in the summertime. Once you’ve defeated your family over a rousing game of golf, you can go pay a visit to Francis, Irving, George, Meg and Calvin. They are Lark Toys’ resident miniature llamas, who llove people and llope up to greet them.
Lark Toys makes the perfect Christmastime family excursion, even if golf is off the menu this time of year. They are about the same direction and distance from the Twin Cities as Rochester, and you can learn more about them online at larktoys.com.
By David Scheller