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

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A letter from Elliott Donnelley, Father of Scale-Craft OO

Digging in the files last night I found a forgotten treasure, a letter from Elliott Donnelley of Scale-Craft to William Chapin. I got to know Bill Chapin, a long time OO gauger, in the late 1980s when I was a graduate student in Rochester, NY. I was to his house a number of times and he allowed me to borrow and Xerox many catalogs and other materials.

Included in these materials was this letter from Elliott Donnelley dated October 3, 1950 to Chapin. Bill must have written him about the availability of OO. The letterhead is for Scale-Craft & Company (with the added phrase “Not Incorporated”) of Round Lake, Illinois, and lists Elliott Donnelley as president and N. Burton Barr as Vice President. Donnelley (UPDATE: seen at left in this photo from the 1941 Scale-Craft catalog) had sold the firm to Doug Douglass in 1946. Douglass moved operations to California, but a few years later Donnelley purchased the line back. The letter begins,
Dear Mr. Chapin:

For some time I have been intending to write you in regard to our plans. Every time I have started, some new national crisis has arisen. Rumors have run rampart [sic] and I, as a result, have stalled. Now is the time in my opinion to “take the bull by the horns” and make a definite stand.

It has taken me a great deal more time and the all important cash to get the Scale-Craft business back on its feet than I ever dreamt it would. I think if I had foreseen last January all the troubles that we have had, I would have been tempted to dump the whole business in Lake Michigan.
The letter continues that while the Round Lake version of their catalog (the last Scale-Craft catalog) says that they were moving to a mail order business model, they were as of the date of this letter “changing our sales policy to a limited dealer set up.” This was so that customers could inspect merchandise before purchase. After an explanation of how this would work and a discussion of necessary price increases and of the O gauge line he continued,
As for “OO”, the Chicago and North Western 4-8-4 is now in production. The Ten-wheeler 4-6-4 [sic] should be ready about November 1, and will be followed by the 0-6-0 about a month afterwards. We have done some redesigning on both of these locomotives which we hope is for the better. Sometime next spring we plan to have a Hudson 4-6-4 type in “OO” available.
WHOA! That last item is a real news item. Scale-Craft in 1950 was planning to produce a new 4-6-4, presumably similar to their O gauge 4-6-4! Sadly, this was never produced. After discussing shipping problems he closed,
As for our future plans, we have them, but it wouldn’t be wise to say too much about them at this time until I can see what restrictions are going to be imposed on the use of materials and labor.

Thank you for being so patient and not hanging me mentally from the highest tree top.

Sincerely yours,

Elliott Donnelley
As also noted in this this post (which has an interesting, related quote from Nat Polk), Elliott Donnelley (1903-1975) was a son of R. R. Donnelley and was the owner of Scale-Craft, the leading maker of OO gauge models, during the majority of the time the line was in production. Besides model trains, in which he had been active since the early 1930s, Donnelley 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.

UPDATE 2011: Also see this longer biography of Elliott Donnelley in the Lake Forest College website. This is the best bio I have seen of Donnelley (link updated 2013) and should be read in full. Donnelley was also interested in live steam models (this photo is linked from their site) and we learn these additional details of the time frame that he produced OO gauge models.
In his early adult and married years he and his spouse, Ann Steinwedell Donnelley (Hardy), lived in various small houses in Lake Forest on Wildwood and Atteridge Roads. In 1934 The Donnelleys built a home, designed by architects Frazier & Raftery, on Ridge Lane in Lake Forest, originally with a train room in the basement. Donnelley's model train set-up later moved to the nearby basement of Lake Forest's City Hall. In 1955 the Frazier firm again designed for the Donnelleys a new International Style home on former J. Ogden Armour estate land on Waukegan Road. (These houses are discussed and illustrated in detail in Walter Frazier..., a 2009 book on the firm's work in the community.) Again, there was a train room and also a shop for his live steam train operation, at full steam Saturdays and for visiting groups.

The personable and very down-to-earth Elliott Donnelley later was vice chairman of the family-led printing firm, R. R. Donnelley & Sons, complementing his more patrician brother, Gaylord, who was chairman, and facilitiating good relations with the company's line employees. His people skills led him to be a leader in various arenas, including as mayor of Lake Forest from 1954 to 1957.

No comments: