'Made in America': Channel Craft's Toys Are 'Best Kept Little Secrets'

Company makes 100-plus items and bringing jobs, life to crippled mill town.

April 13, 2011, 12:13 AM

April 13, 2011 — -- Dean Helfer is running a sort of Santa's workshop in Charleroi, Pa.

"The captain's puzzle, the pioneers puzzle, the Chinese jump rope, the hopscotch, the jacks, the marbles. We're making authentic American toys," Helfer said. "We have all types of flight toys. ... We've created train whistles, kazoos. ... We create the kinda fun that everybody should have a part in."

Charleroi, just outside of Pittsburgh and once a thriving steel mill town, was crippled in the 1970s when the mills were shuttered. Helfer said the mill closings caused a mass exodus. "This town of Charleroi is about half the population it was 20 years ago," Helfer said.

It was around that time that Helfer started making and selling toys from the back of his van. "This was my first shop," he said. "I was in college and put a shop in back. ... Anywhere I was able to find electricity, I would build boomerangs and demonstrate them."

Helfer's Channel Craft company now makes more than 100 authentic American-crafted toys. The wood used to make items like whistles and tic tac toe boards are locally grown and include poplar and sassafras. Today Helfer has replaced the van with a 32,000-foot plant with more than 30 permanent employees.

Although 90 percent of children's toys are made in China, according to the Toy Industry Association, Helfer has no interest in leaving. "All of these materials come right here in Pennsylvania. Everything that we do is made in the United States," he said.

"I've got over 10,000 customers that are proud of that too," he said. "They like to boast that the products in their toy store, in their national park, in their museum is made right here in the United States."

Though he admits Channel Craft can't compete with countries like China when it comes to price, Helfer said he does compete on quality and service.

"I can get my customers what they need the same week," he said. "I can put my customer's name on the product. I can put it in their colors. My reps can service it personally."

Channel Craft: Best Kept Little Secret

Kathleen Vignoli used to be a letter carrier for the postal service. She started working at Channel Craft in September after she saw a newspaper ad offering part-time, temporary work assembling toys.

"I thought what fun does that sound like?" Vignoli said. "So I came up and I got hired. [Channel Craft] was one of the best-kept little secrets."

She said the company had helped the town rebound. "A lot of people come and apply for work," Vignoli said.

Kristen Franks echoed Vignoli's comments. Franks feared she'd have to leave her hometown of Charleroi to support her family. "I have four children that I don't want to have to move away," she said. "With things [job openings at Channel Craft] like this, it's possible to stay."

Helfer says Channel Craft plans to hire more employees next year. "Fortunately we have a great work ethic," he said. "People that haven't been given anything, that have earned what they have. People that have stuck it out from some pretty thick and thin times."

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