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Grandpa H.'s toy story

John Hughes and grandson Treston Hughes, 11, look at the pile of wooden toys John has made for his grandchildren over the years. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 3
John Hughes' grandchildren hold the favorite toys he has made for them over the years. (From left) Briella, 5, Hughes holding granddaughter Natalia, 10 months, Kelton, 8, and Treston, 11. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 3
As an infant, Natalia Hughes slept for photos in a doll cradle her grandpa made for her older sister. (Contributed)3 / 3

John Hughes always thought he'd be a carpenter. Wood had always attracted him, and as a kid he'd watch carpenters working on their projects. He took shop class in school, studied carpentry, and worked for contractors.

Then a couple things happened. He got laid off. And his oldest son, Ryan, was born.

So, sometimes a dad's gotta do what a dad's gotta do.

He left carpentry behind.

""Because you know what happens in the fall," said the Alexandria man. Carpentry work slows down and the youngest workers get the axe first.

For the next couple of decades, Hughes worked in the beer business. He drove a truck at first, then sold beer, then managed a warehouse. He continued to fiddle with wood, making toys such as wooden slingshots for Ryan and his younger brother, Eric.

When they got older, he taught them a few things with wood, although neither of them went into carpentry. Ryan went into engineering and Eric into computers.

Then something else happened.

Grandkids came along. And Hughes retired.

He decided that he was going to make a wooden toy for each grandchild's birthday each year for their first five years.

From his small basement workshop — equipped with a miter saw, bandsaw, drill, sander and planer — he began turning out trains, trucks and planes for his two grandsons, Treston, now 11, and Kelton, now 8. Then Briella was born, and so were doll furniture, a doll house and a jewelry box.

He invested meaning into the toys. Most incorporated prized black walnut knocked down when a spring tornado went through his wife's parents' farm in 2008. Some were patterned after toys his father-in-law had made for his wife, Cindy, when she was little.

He made a B-17 World War II bomber in honor of his own dad, who had worked on B-17s during the war.

He paid attention to his grandkids, figuring out what each one might like. When one admired trucks, he created a semi tractor-trailer rig. He made wooden four-wheelers because their dad, Ryan, worked on four-wheelers when they lived in Thief River Falls.

He stamped each one, "Made by Grandpa H."

"I feel like I remember getting this," said Treston, holding up one smooth wooden toy on a recent afternoon.

Some of the toys are now in storage. Someday, the kids can pass them onto their own children.

Briella still plays with hers, said her mom, Angela Hughes.

Hughes thought his toy story would end when Briella turned 5. But there's a sequel: Ryan and Angela have a fourth child, a 10-month-old named Natalia. She will turn 1 in two months, and Hughes knows he has at least five more toys to make.

He's already well on the way to finishing her first one. And he knows already what her last one will be. Those are secrets.

And for the three gifts in the middle? Well, he'll just have to watch Natalia and figure out what she likes.