The online magazine on the history and operation of vintage scale model trains in American OO gauge

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Nat Polk recalls the mid-30s, Scale-Craft, and Lionel OO

Looking in back issues of The OO Road I found a note from Ed Morlok on an article posted in the Aristo Craft Trains website, a 1995 interview with hobby pioneer Nat Polk, who passed on in 1996. There are several items of note in relation to American OO in the interview but this exchange is the most interesting,
B: How did you get into model railroading?

N: Model railroading, of course, was a love of ours always. Because we sold Lionel and American Flyer and Marx - that was strictly from the toy end. When people like Gordon Varney and John Tyler from Tyco or Mantua it was called then, because the company was in Mantua, NJ, started to sell by mail. We got very interested and talked to those two.

1934 was the year that Al Kalmbach started Model Railroader, and that was the year we opened in New York City. Bill Walthers was already in the mail order business. So we went to Tyler and to Varney and said we think we can sell these train kits and locomotives and so on through the model airplane shops. Well, they didn't believe that, but they were willing to have a go at it. So, we bought a bunch of stuff and gosh, in one month we got rid of it because it was very easy to teach those model airplane shops to go into model railroading. After that they were called hobby shops, no longer model airplane shops and we did very well.

About this time the fellow in Chicago, you know the Redbook man, Donnelley – Reuben [sic] Donnelley went into business. He was making kits mostly, and he came to us and we did the same with his line.

B: He was OO and O gauge?

N: Yes, he was OO and O gauge. That was one of the reasons that Lionel jumped head first into OO. They were so afraid that this guy who was loaded with money that he could put in a gauge they didn't have. I told Josh Cowen, don't crash into it because you have HO lurking in the background and it is much more popular and much more available in HO, but Lionel jumped right in to OO because they were worried about Donnelley, they weren't worried about any of the HO guys. That was a mistake on their part, as we all know now. Cowen was afraid of Donnelley's money and that Donnelley would surpass him.

When Donnelley's daughter died in an accident at home, he lost all desire to do anything, and that was when he stopped making anything else. He kind of lost heart.
Nat Polk was the founder of Polk’s Hobby, a major supplier for OO back in the day. The direct link to the article is at http://www.aristocraft.com/articles/nat/natpolk.html

I believe Mr. Polk is actually referring above to Elliott Donnelley (1903-1975), a son of R. R. Donnelley, who owned Scale-Craft. He had a number of interests, this short biography pointing to his activities with Trout Unlimited and also a youth center is named for him. R.R. Donnelley and Sons is still in business and a very major commercial printer to this day. Reuben H. Donnelley was the brother of R. R. Donnelley and had another large business that was based in New York (DEX is the successor firm), which would have been more familiar to Polk and Cowan (he published their telephone directory) and likely caused the 1995 slip of the tongue. The gist of it is that Cowan knew that Scale-Craft had the finances to start a new scale in a big way and he wanted to keep up. Interesting reading.

UPDATE: A very similar interview with Nat Polk may be found in the September, 1996 issue of Classic Toy Trains. Essentially the same passage quoted above may be found on page 110, with a few tweaks and shortened.

UPDATE II: More information on Elliott Donnelley may be found in this article.

UPDATE III: And another view on the story about the child is found here. 

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