ELKTON, Fla.—David Fisk gesticulates excitedly as he sits in a straight-back chair and talks about the wooden toys he makes.
“Jesus said unless we are like little children, we're not going to see God,” he says, supporting his 4-year-old daughter, Rita, on his right knee.
In the corner of the old, country house, his 2-year-old son, Jonathan, plays on the hardwood floor.
“What I'm doing I wouldn't claim to be art,” Fisk says, as if he had been challenged on this point. “They're toys. They're not art.”
Fisk, a Catholic convert who grew up gardening and making squirrel traps, went to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, some 10 years ago and majored in theology. But it wasn't until after graduation that he found what he wanted to do with his life: handcraft wooden toys that teach the faith.
“It just dawned on me. Toys! Of course—for children,” says the 39-year-old Fisk, whose youthful face belies the fact that he once had a beard like a Franciscan Friar. “And then I thought, I've got a theology degree. Let's put it to work.”
In 1997, with the prayers of St. John Bosco, a 19th-century Italian priest who rescued boys from the slums and taught them trades, Bosco Toys Inc. was born.
The business started in the basement of a rickety house Fisk had bought years earlier in Steubenville for $4,750 and renovated himself. He loved having the woods behind his house there, he says, and now being in Elkton and rearing five goats, he talks convincingly about the creamy sweetness of goat's milk.
It wasn't until this past summer that Fisk began working full time to build his toy business, having worked part time in the construction industry for years.
Part of the Bosco Toys operation is set up in a small room adjoining the living area of the house. The other half is behind Fisk's home, in an old milk barn, where amid the sawdust a couple of Swiss Style yogurt cups filled to the brim with tool parts sit on a shelf. It's here that Fisk, president and sole employee of the company, lives out his dream of teaching truth through toys.
“I don't know if it's a passion or an insanity,” says Fisk inside the milk barn.
Fisk began making Noah's arks, with the accompanying biblical figures and animals, using untreated Baltic birch plywood and child-safe elastic hinges. Now, Fisk has an Internet site, www.boscotoys.com, that showcases the Noah's ark set as well as two puzzle sets, each consisting of six puzzles that illustrate events in Scripture.
“We wanted something unique,” says his wife, Chris, also sitting in a straight-back chair and holding 2-month-old Monica against her chest. “Not something people always see in pictures and books.”
The Passion/Resurrection series depicts events centering on Easter, and the Incarnation series contains a puzzle of the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary and a puzzle showing Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem. Imprinted on each puzzle is a Scripture passage explaining the illustration, done by a graphic artist outside the business and transferred to the wood by Fisk.
Although a passion of his, the business has been “an enormous cross to bear all along,” Fisk says. Computers have crashed, erasing design specifications, and a motor on one of the machines one day burst into flames.
With credit card debt and college student loan interest to pay off, the family makes use of food stamps and lives in a house owned by Chris' uncle. To help pay for the utility bills and general upkeep of the house, Chris works three days a week at the rectory of St. Ambrose Catholic Church, located just down the road.
The Fisks have gotten some financial help from Mark Ryland, an old friend and now president of AMDG Systems Inc., a computer software consulting company based in Great Falls, Va.
“We had enough faith in him and enough friendship that we decided to give a small investment,” says Ryland, who lives in Seattle with his family of eight children. “We are excited to see that he has a passion for this.”
It was Ryland who Fisk says encouraged him to follow his passion to build toys. Fisk met Ryland and his family in Steubenville while working in construction shortly after graduating. He says seeing the Rylands home school their children inspired him to want to do the same for his children one day. It also helped confirm his desire to make toys, a career that would allow him to spend a lot of time at home with his family.
Ryland, a member of the board of directors at Virginia's Christendom College, later became the godfather of Fisk's 4-year-old daughter, who seems to stick close by her dad's side.
“He struck me right away, even before he married, as someone who would make a good father,” Ryland says of Fisk. “When he expressed interest in the toy business, I thought that it was a great fit, from what I knew of him.”
Now that he's concentrating on the business full-time, Fisk says he has begun selling his toys by mail order through the Internet site and, primarily, at church craft fairs in the area. He has also advertised his business nationally in several Catholic publications and sold some puzzles to small local retail shops and people at his church.
Recently, Fisk sold 14 sets of puzzles to a St. Augustine, Fla., couple, Fred and Peggy Miller, Catholic missionaries with the Arkansas-based Go Ye Ministries. They plan to go to Peru and Honduras this winter and give the puzzles to children.
“It helps our group out because it's something we can give kids in another country,” says Fred Miller, who met Fisk at church. “If we have a choice of whether to buy toys from a secular or Christian company, we'd rather buy from a Christian company.”
Comparing a wooden puzzle to a plastic, mass-produced product on today's market, Miller says one reason he likes the puzzles is that they're durable and can be passed on from generation to generation.
This is the first year Fisk has marketed his toys and puzzles at craft fairs during the pre-Christmas season, so it's hard to say if business has picked up because of the approaching holidays. But at one fair in early November, Fisk says he did better than usual, selling 39 puzzles and seven arks.
The process of crafting the toys is innovative and complex. Fisk uses machines such as a vacuum jig, shrink wrap and shop bot, along with a $10 computer monitor he bought at a church yard sale, to help automate the process.
It's taken him years to research and learn what he knows about making wooden toys and puzzles that are long-lasting and safe for children. It's perhaps taken so much time that he often refers to accomplishments in the plural, as if to say his wife and children, too, have shared in all the ups and downs of the business.
“It's taken us a long time to get where we're at,” Fisk says. “I've done a lot of learning in the past few years. I've learned by the school of hard knocks.”
Fisk says he plans to make wooden board games someday and maybe little wooden shrines of favorite saints. He says he wants to eventually move from selling his toys at craft fairs to marketing them at professional trade shows, where retailers scout out new products to sell at their stores.
But for now, Fisk doesn't have the equipment or labor to mass-produce the toys, nor does he have the money—what he makes from the toys is still used to pay off his debts.
“I would like to get to the point where I could market these wholesale,” Fisk says. “We want to teach children Bible stories and we want to teach them the faith. To reach that goal, I need to be able to produce as much as I can.”
Bart Price writes
from St. Augustine, Florida.