'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 — -- 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."