They don’t just tinker. But after a year of battling the isolating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bradenburys of D&A Toys are calling it quits for good.
The Bradenburys are an older couple in their mid-seventies that is coming to the end of what they love to do…sell customized toy truck models fashioned after their real counterparts.
At the D&A Toy Company, making trucks is no child’s play: Metalwork, custom paint, the works, Alan Brandenbury is an artist that has brought his skills to the trucking community for decades– configuring toy trucks to match a clients’ truck down to the very last detail.
The Bradenbury’s are perched at the opening of the vendor tent at the Truckers Jamboree Event in Walcott, Iowa’s famous I-80 truck stop. Pre-COVID-19 the event had been drawing numbers of 45,000 attendees, with more than 175 vendor stalls.
Around them, there are tasers buzzing with shocking brightness at numerous stalls, the smell of popcorn is in the air, and vendors are hawking everything from dishes to gun owner’s insurance.
Hundreds of drivers are circulating through the domed tent that looks like the circus has come to town: It’s a cheerful sort of chaos, but the Brandenburys are utterly at ease. They both sit with one of their matching, small white dogs on their lap, placidly watching the crowds ramble and rumble their way through.
“We just had our best show ever,” Alan’s wife Deana tells me happily. “But we’re getting out.”
She absentmindedly combs her dog’s fur with a plastic fork as she remembers the decades gone by, spent with drivers, trying to make them happy with specially painted trucks.
Their stall boasts hundreds of custom trucks. But the stacks reaching toward the tent’s dome are all hung with going out of business signs, with handwritten markdowns, and warnings that their merchandise will soon be gone.
Their toy company was not immune from the toll COVID-19 took on the entire economy in 2020. The Brandenburys said they went from 22 shows a year to just 2 last year.
“We had trouble with the supply chain, and then with so few shows we had to stop ordering trucks to work on,” Deana says.
For Alan Brandenbury customizing trucks found him: He had his first serious heart attack at age 32. He had to have quadruple bypass surgery on his heart to save his life. And as a result, his heart was left weakened enough to leave him disabled to the end of his days.
“He needed something to do,” Deana recalls.
Heart trouble may have led Alan to creating model trucks, but he puts his entire heart into the artwork that goes into each project: Sometimes Alan would spend a month on a single order. The painted details, the metal work that was involved was a labor of love. When asked if he has a favorite toy truck project, Alan smiles impishly and says, “I have a hundred of them at home.”
At their height, the Brandenbury’s would travel from truck show to truck show with a convoy of other toy makers. They enjoyed being friends with artists, and were part of the culture of an older time– when things were done by hand, slowly, and with painstaking care.
They have sold 3,600 hand made models to people all over the country and to many places around the world. “We’ve sold to New Zealand, Australia, Brazille.”
The Brandenburys think that in the post-covid era there are more drivers, more participants in the Truckers Jamboree than ever before. “People are just ready to get out.”
But the shutdown of events like Walcott’s Truckers Jamboree and almost every other in-person trucking event in the country has taken its toll on small businesses like the D&A Toy Company.
Next week is their very last show.
The Brandenburys have been doing truck shows for decades. They said the people, the drivers were always their favorite part. But after a year of pandemic-shutdowns they are closing down for good.
And the Brandenburys are looking forward to retirement. They are leaving their longtime home in Salina, Ks. to head south to Oklahoma. They say that they are excited to have more time with their grandchildren.
“With Co-Vid we kind of like staying home,” Deana chimes in peacefully.
As the world returns to normal post-COVID-19, it’s good to know that iconic trucking events like I-80’s Truckers Jamboree are returning with more enthusiasm than ever. It will be exciting to see what artists and craftsmen rise to take the torch from businesses like the Brandenburys’ D&A Toy Company.