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A toy collection that brings back memories

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 25, 2010

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CHESHIRE, Conn. — With colorful cutouts of cartoon characters scattered across the lawn, it would be easy to mistake the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum for a day-care center.

But “this is boomer heaven,’’ says curator Judy Fuerst. “Boomers bring their kids and grandkids, and then they come back alone to spend more time.’’ It’s not unusual, she says, for some visitors to spend the entire afternoon peering into the cases.

And that’s just skimming the collection. The museum opened in a converted barn in 1997 with 50,000 objects. Now it displays more than 80,000 collectibles fashioned in the images of pop culture characters from comic strips, cartoons, television shows, western movies and TV, and advertising. In other words, it’s a place to go to visit old friends.

It’s also a cautionary tale about casual collecting. When Herb and Gloria Barker started cruising tag sales in the 1960s, says Fuerst, they were initially seeking original Disney production drawings. But the couple expanded their acquisitions to all manner of cartoon and comic book characters, and the more they collected, the wider their purview became.

“Mr. Barker didn’t have a lot of toys until he was in his 50s,’’ Fuerst says. “You could say he made up for lost time.’’ The collection filled the Barkers’ house for decades until Gloria suggested that they ought to share the wealth. (Or maybe she just got tired of dusting.)

The museum comprises three rooms jammed with displays. More than 1,000 character lunch boxes are hung from the ceilings, all in alphabetical order. (The first production character lunch box, by the way, was a Hopalong Cassidy model from 1950.) A 12-page brochure provides a basic floor plan of the display cases and their contents and marks highlights of each of the rooms.

From Felix the Cat figurines to Charlie McCarthy dummies to Tom Mix cap pistols to California Raisins claymation figures to plastic versions of Buzz Lightyear and the Incredible Hulk, hardly a pop culture phenomenon escaped the Barkers. A good place to start might be the Boomer Case, which Fuerst says she filled “with all the things I loved as a kid.’’ That includes Tinkertoys, Cootie, Mickey Mouse Club memorabilia, “It’s a Small World’’ figures, the Charlie Weaver animated bartender, and figures of Piels Real Draft pitchmen Bob and Ray.

“Visual memory is so strong,’’ says Fuerst, “that when you see an object, it brings back your childhood. If you haven’t played with it personally, your friends did.’’

Given Walt Disney’s genius for marketing, it’s no surprise that Disney figures abound. The Barkers even scored an early figurine of Oswald Rabbit, a character that Disney created before he built an empire on the back of Mickey Mouse. But Popeye is arguably an even bigger star at the museum.

Herb Barker “was born six days after Popeye in 1929,’’ says Fuerst. “They were almost twins. We have the definitive Popeye collection.’’ The cases contain almost every Popeye windup toy ever made (including one in which celluloid Popeye and Bluto figures have a boxing match) to Popeye candy cigarettes and an official Popeye pipe that glows as if lighted.

Gloria Barker has her own collecting passions. She is largely responsible for a case of character-themed tin banks that were handed out in schools to encourage children to be thrifty. She also has an eye for ramp walkers, a category of toys that waddle down any slightly inclined plane. The oldest toys in the museum are a pair of ramp-walking cast iron elephants made in 1873 by the Ives Co. of Bridgeport, Conn. Some of the rarest ramp walkers combine images of the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs.

Every object in the museum is tagged with a ballpark range of its current collectible value, from the nickel-and-dime McDonald’s giveaways to rare Depression-era tin toys. The prices are for information only; nothing is for sale. “Aside from finding your own toys,’’ says Fuerst, “you can also find out what that thing you threw away might have been worth today.’’

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum
1118 Highland Ave.
Cheshire, Conn.
203-699-3822
www.barkermuseum.com
Wed-Sat noon-4. Adults $5, age 12 and under $3, 2 and under free.