Willoughby: Model toys provided plenty for fun as a youth

Tim WIlloughby
Zeke Clymer behind the counter of his store, Zeke’s Hobbies in 1968. Photo by Dodie Gust Aspen Historical Society – Aspen Times Collection photo

Flying radio controlled drones appeals to youth today, in the 1950s gas powered model airplanes were the rage, but building them was more popular than flying them.

Model airplanes had been a boy’s hobby for decades. In 1927 a committee headed by Orville Wright took advantage of Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic and organized a national summer model airplane building and flying event. The Playground and Recreation Association of America sponsored the event encouraging youth to participate. Aspen did not participate, but Tommy Tate and Delbert Copley, two members of Aspen’s Eagle’s Club entertainment committee came up with a similar idea in 1956. They put the word out and set up Friday evening meetings in the Eagle’s building basement.

The club grew to a solid ten or more boys attending with the boys electing officers. M.J. Elisha was chosen president and Dick Pecjak and Tommy Moore filled the other officers’ positions.

The Aspen Times noted, “Just as in well known cases where Junior was given an electric train for Christmas, it’s father who plays with it!” “Several of the fathers took their sons to the meetings and lingered awhile to see what was going on. They dallied with other lingering fathers and they discussed a similar club for adults.”

I was much younger than the club focus, but model airplanes dominated my hobby interest for the next few years. The club, named the Aspen Aerobats, in addition to their Friday meetings held flying events on Sunday afternoons in Wagner park only a block away from my home. This was before radio control took over so builders tethered their planes with two lines and flew in circles. The up and down of the plane could be controlled when one of the two lines was pulled slightly changing the wing flaps. It was as interesting watching the ritual of gassing up the planes, starting the engines, which often took multiple attempts, as it was seeing them fly and hearing the drone of the small gas motors.

The club learned early on that Aspen’s thin air challenged airborneness. The solution was to have greater wingspan so larger planes prevailed. Three-foot wide or greater wings were common, and larger motors also worked better but required having larger or more than one gas tank.

My second draw was M.J. Elisha. Our families were close friends and his sister Ingrid and I were only a month apart in age so our parents sent us off to play together. The Elisha house, one of the taller Victorians on Main Street, had an attic M.J. used as workspace to build models. He was a prolific builder and his collection was hung on the walls of his bedroom, beautifully painted in bright colors. I would enviously stare at them, but especially enjoyed the work in progress. Seeing step-by-step how balsa wood and paper could be turned into a plane was more exciting than the plastic models of cars, boats and planes I was crudely assembling at home.

My final draw to model airplanes came because I lived across the street from Tompkins Hardware where Zeke Clymer operated a hobby section featuring model airplanes. There you could buy kits, engines, parts, and every size of balsa wood you would need for any kind of model project. I spent hours drooling over so many choices, all beyond my modest supply of coins. Then I went home and paged through my pile of Popular Mechanics looking at model airplane stories and ads.

Zeke’s welding business was on the other side of my home, he took over the building Dale Grant Plumbing Company built. A welding business is an understatement of what he did there. Zeke could build anything, and rebuilt anything to a higher working standard. Besides selling planes and parts, he was the advice center for model airplane builders.

I saved enough money to buy something and Clymer had an engine on sale. I didn’t have an airplane to put it on, but while I wanted to build one my model building skills were lacking. I was good at envy but carefully cutting balsa wood parts took patience, something by youthful age precluded. However, I mounted my motor on a board, connected it to a gas tank, filled that with gas, connected the starter battery, and drove my mother crazy with motor buzz.

Youth in Aspen when I was a child had no shortage of activities to occupy our time.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at