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Toys brighten lives of children, craftsman

December 25, 2018

His workshop is in a garage in Norfolk, not on the North Pole. And he doesn’t have a beard or travel in a sleigh.

But this craftsman has brightened Christmas morning for many boys and girls.

In the process, he’s created a new career for himself after almost dying in work-related accident years ago.

Larry Wittler, now 74, doesn’t remember much of the day in August 2003 when the loading dock he was standing on collapsed and a 1,000-pound cart rolled back, hitting his head and pinning him against a wall.

At the time, Wittler was working at a processing center near Wayne that handles thousands of chickens. A fellow employee who was also pinned managed to escape, but Wittler was stuck. An ambulance was summoned, but recent heavy rains had made the area so muddy that it had to be pulled in with a tractor.

Finally, Wittler was freed and transported to the hospital in Wayne and immediately flown to a hospital in Sioux City.

When Deanna Wittler, his wife of 50 years, received the call notifying her that her husband had been in an accident, she expected something simple — like a broken arm. She called their daughter, who lived in Wakefield, and asked her to go to the hospital in Wayne to be with her father. Deanna, who was working at the Surgi Center in Norfolk at the time, arrived in Wayne just as the helicopter taking her husband to Sioux City lifted off.

When Deanna arrived at the hospital, she was met by a priest who apologized, saying Larry was so severely injured that the priest was only able to stay at his side for a few minutes.

“His head was the size of a beachball,” Deanna said.

He was so disfigured that Deanna had to identify him by his clothing so doctors could proceed to perform surgery.

“His face was totally crushed,” Deanna said “We didn’t think he was going to live.

But he did.

After enduring two craniotomies and spending 30 days in the hospital — most of that time in a coma — Larry was able to return home. In time, he tried go back to work, but he was unable to do the heavy lifting required and retired as a result.

One day, Deanna suggested he find something to occupy his time and encouraged him to build a birdhouse. Which he did. It was a little rough, Deanna said, so he tried again.

Then Deanna suggested he build farm toys for his grandchildren. He built a fence with interlocking posts so the size and design of the corral could be changed to accommodate the space available.

“I made it so you can add to it,” Larry said.

But fences need gates, so Larry designed one that would fit his interlocking fence. It also swings back and forth.

Since farm animals need feed and water, Larry proceeded to build water tanks, round bale feeders, feed bunks and even feed wagons with wheels from used inline skates. He designed and built loading chutes, rodeo chutes and even squeeze chutes, which are used when vaccinating cattle, as well as a crow’s nest like that used at rodeos and other pieces.

Larry’s lumber of choice is pine. He buys the dowels used in the fences in 6-foot lengths and cuts them into 4-inch pieces. He uses a drill press to make the holes in the interlocking posts.

So far, he’s made 6 miles of fencing — enough to contain a lot of toy-sized cattle.

The garage that used to house the Wittlers’ vehicle is stacked with plastic tubs full of gates, posts, chutes and other wooden toys as well as saws, drill presses and other tools.

The couple spend much of their time selling their wares at craft shows around the area. They call their business Toy Corrals.

Some people may be surprised to know that children still like to build barnyards and rodeo grounds for their plastic horses and cows — or even alligators as was the case for one of the Wittlers’ grandchildren.

“Parents say kids play with them for hours,” Larry said. “Some of them want to set up a fence like dad or grandpa have.”

Although Larry does have some memory issues due to the accident, the couple are grateful the Lord spared his life, Deanna said. They show their gratitude by sharing their blessings with others, she added.

One of those blessings is Larry’s talent for woodworking, which he plans to keep sharing for as long as possible.

“I don’t know what he’d do without it,” Deanna said.

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