Salem seniors craft toy trucks for kids 

Tucked away in the basement of Salem’s Capital Manor is an approximately 300-square-foot woodshop filled with lathes, saws, and plenty of wood chips. Most days, resident Gene Derfler is hard at work in the shop. 

Derfler turns out startlingly lifelike wood carvings of trout, steelhead, and koi. He painstakingly adds details like scales and fins, and he displays them atop rocks—which are also carved out of wood. Some of Derfler’s favorite carvings are on display in the café at Capital Manor. 

Derfler was a member of the Oregon House of Representatives from 1998 to 1994 and a member of the Oregon State Senate from 1994 to 2002. He’ll celebrate his 100th birthday in May and still manages to fish several times every year. 

“I still fish when I can, but I don’t go as often as I used to,” he said. 

Derfler took up woodworking when he retired, after a lifetime of collecting wood carvings made by other people. A minor interest has turned into a passion, and he is known for walking the halls at Capital Manor with a few wood shavings on his shirtsleeves. 

For about nine months every year, Derfler sets the fish aside and starts working on a completely different project. 

A team of 10 residents at Capital Manor builds wooden toy trucks to benefit Head Start chapters in Salem, Keizer, and Polk County. Last year, 900 toy trucks were delivered just in time for Christmas. The residents hope to match or even surpass that goal this year. 

“This is done by the residents, and Capital Manor doesn’t contribute anything,” Derfler said. “Over 13 years, probably about 11,000 trucks have been given to kids. I think it’s a great project.”

Every truck is built in the woodshop inside Capital Manor. The shop is filled with examples of trucks from years prior, and this year’s crop is just taking shape. Plain wood bodies wait for their turn to be sanded, and storage closets are packed to the brim with wood. 

Some supplies, like wood for the truck’s bodies, are donated. But other supplies, like the paint and wheels, are purchased. That’s where the donations come in. The team spends about $3,500 each year on supplies for the trucks.

Every truck represents hours of work. The truck’s body starts as a 2-inch by 6-inch piece of wood. A pattern is drawn on the wood, and holes are drilled in appropriate spots for the wheels and axle. The body is then sanded twice and painted twice. The box, which is the back of the truck, is also sanded and painted. The team then makes and paints wooden bumpers, hubcaps, and headlights. Everything is then assembled and tested. 

“It’s a lot of work putting them together. I counted, and it’s like 35 pieces that go into each truck. It’s kind of tedious,” said Derfler. 

Emery Billings is the team’s self-described head painter. He’s so particular about the colors used that he mixes up his own when he can’t find the shade that’s just right. 

“I get to put all of those colors together. Sometimes I mix the colors, like purple. We can’t buy all the colors, so we just buy five or six colors and I mix the rest,” Billings said. 

Capital Manor residents once made many different types of moving vehicles, but decided to focus solely on the trucks a few years ago.

“One of the things I was concerned about when we started was that trucks are typically associated with boys, but the girls like them just as much as they boys do,” Derfler said.  

Billings decided to mix up a special color of pink, in case the girls needed extra motivation to enjoy their trucks. 

“Last year, I started mixing pink. This year we started buying pink. We made probably a fourth of them pink, and some of the boys liked that color too,” Billings said. 

When the trucks are complete, a representative team from Capital Manor meets a small group of representative students from local Head Start chapters. Watching the kids pick their truck is a highlight. 

“It’s interesting to watch the kids. Some of them will just come up and take one. Some of them will get out and walk around before picking one. I noticed one little boy last year: he walked around and picked one, and went back and sat down to look at it for a little while. And then he got up and went back and took a different one,” Derfler said. 

The Capital Manor truck team will accept checks dropped off at the front desk, or you can mail them to Capital Manor at 1955 Salem Dallas Highway N.W., Salem, OR, 97304. Make the check payable to Capital Manor, and write a note in the memo field identifying the funds as a donation to the toy truck project. 

Gene Derler applies primer to a carving to prepare it for painting on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

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Jean Dion is a freelance writer and marketing professional. She's lived in Salem for about 10 years. When not writing, she dabbles in gardening, photography, and caring for her dogs, cats, and rabbits.