Donald Bates, friends make wooden cars for Bel Air United Methodist Church Christmas toy drive

Seventy-five handmade wooden cars, six carpenter carriers and 12 children’s carriers were spread out on the floor of Donald Bates’ workshop at his home in Forest Hill on a mid-November morning — all to be delivered later that afternoon to Bel Air United Methodist Church.

Bates and his friends Elizabeth Volmer of Joppa and Dave Dixon of Fallston made all of them for the church’s annual toy drive. They’ve been doing it for 10 years.


“They’re the only toys brought there made out of wood, so we’re treated like royalty,” Volmer said.

Bates does most of the wood-working, Dixon designs the toys and Volmer coordinates the toy donation with the church.


“We’re doing it for the children, that’s what this is all for. No one should go Christmas morning without a toy,” Volmer said. “If 100 people could be made happy on Christmas, that’s what it’s all about.”

Elaine Ziegler, who has been coordinating the Christmas Toy Workshop at Bel Air United Methodist for 48 years, said their toys are “pretty much” the only ones handmade.

“It’s taking their interest and making it available to all kinds of people. They’re so enthusiastic about it, so it’s pretty neat," Ziegler said. “It’s so neat to see someone so enthusiastic and sharing what they love.”

Over the years, they have made doll beds, pull toys, treasure boxes and cradles.

“They try to come up with something new each year,” she said.

Last year, it was the carriers, which church volunteers made into art sets to hold crayons, coloring books, paints and brushes. “You can put all kinds of art stuff in them,” Ziegler said.

Bates remembers a quote from an Amish farmer he tries to follow: “It’s not what you have, but what you give that measures the worth of the live you live.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Volmer said.

“God bless,” said Dixon.

The trio met at the Harford County wood shop. Bates and Volmer have been working the past 10 years out of Bates’ garage — Dixon joined back up with them this year.

Bates is the leader of the group, Volmer and Dixon “do whatever we’re told to do,” they said.

They start around 9 a.m. every Thursday and work until about noon, when they break for a gourmet lunch at the house made by Bates’ wife of 36 years, Nancy. They head back to the workshop around 1:30 and work until sometime between 3 and 3:30.


They do a lot more than work. They joke around a lot and talk and talk and talk.

“We solve all the world’s problems,” Volmer said.

“We talk about everything you can think of,” Dixon said.

“But we don’t talk politics,” Bates added.

“We skirt around it — our politics are very different,” Volmer, who was a senior financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company in the gambling industry for 10 years, said. Despite those differences, “we’ve never had a bad word between us.”

The toys, and everything else they build, are made from wood harvested off Bates’ 11 acres, where 25 years ago he planted 2,560 paulownia trees.

Back then, paulownia trees were being stolen from people’s yards and were being sold for thousands of dollars.

“The Japanese wanted them because they used them for everything,” Bates said.

A state forester found one on Bates’s property and told him to reforest his property with them — the soil would be amenable to them.

“In 20 to 30 years, he said, it will be worth a fortune,” Bates said. “Know what it’s worth now? Nothing.”

When he needs wood, Bates cuts down a tree, puts it on his saw and makes board out of it. The boards are scattered around his workshop, along with a half-dozen to a dozen projects in various phases of completion.

Bates, 92, is a World War II veteran who served two years in the Navy as a firefighter.

A Forest Hill resident for 61 years, he moved to Harford Countyfrom New Castle, Pennsylvania, to be a printing and graphic arts teacher at the new Harford Vocational Technical High School. He worked there for 22 years.

Bates has been woodworking since he was a child.

“I’ve always done it,” he said. “I made my first [wooden] automobile at 8 years told. As a boy, if you gave me a plank and a set of wheels, I made a car out of it.”

He would take engines off gas-powered washing machines.

“I always built things like that," Bates said. “I bought a bike, I put a motor on it.”

In his workshop in Forest Hill, he also builds benches, stools, folding chairs and an airplane with wings that folded back, among other things.

He even built his own house — a log cabin — over a summer in 1978.

Bel Air United Methodist toy drive

Anyone who would like to help the church’s toy drive can drop off new and/or used items at the church through Monday.

The most sought after items are gifts for teenage boys and girls and fathers, receiving blankets for babies and art supplies, Ziegler said.

They can be dropped off any time in the hallway at McComas Hall.

Volunteers begin working on them the day after Thanksgiving, repairing bikes and electronics, washing clothes and stuffed animals and anything else that needs to be done.

Ziegler said it’s a good way to meet people at church.

“You can go to church and be friendly, but with this, you sit down for a couple hours and talk to each other,” she said.

The items are set up like a store, where people who adopt families for the holidays can come and shop for free, even if they’re not affiliated with the church.

“People say it’s for the kids, but it’s also wonderful for parents, teachers, social workers, who can’t lay out the money to do this,” she said.

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