Many in the community know W.T. “Tommy” Allison for his work in the legal system and his community involvement. The 71-year-old has 43 years experience as a civil litigator and has served on a variety of local civic groups and positions.
Most, however, don’t know about Allison’s other passion. But, a glance around any room at his law practice and Allison’s long abiding love of toy soldiers becomes apparent. The painstakingly arranged display cases full of the mostly metal figures are a testament to the time and energy that has gone into each piece and scene.
“Nobody has a clue this is here in Sulphur Springs,” he said, admitting “I don’t mind if people come by and look at my collection. It’s behind glass, so I don’t have to worry about it.”
The pieces are protected by heavy glass and wood, and not easily moved or accessible. And, unless you’re a collector or history buff, the pieces probably won’t mean much. You’d have to recognize sets and values, what goes together and why, their construction and much more.
Allison’s interest in collecting the figurines can in part be attributed to an interest in history and the connection he feels to the figures in the collection due to his service from 1966 to 1969 in the United States Marine Corps Reserve.
And, he pointed out that long years ago, even Winston Churchill collected similar pieces. They were used “way back when to teach kids how they’d do battles.”
But, Allison’s hobby, which has taken over every spare wall space in his offices, dates back much further to his youth.
“I’ve been collecting since third grade,” Allison explains. “When I was in third grade, my mother’s friend brought me a set of British 16th and 5th regiment lancers.”
He remembers a five-piece set costing $1.95.
His mother’s friend had no way of knowing back then when she gifted young Tommy with a few soldiers that it’d become a costly hobby with at least 6,000 pieces and rooms full of display cases filled with the dioramas.
And we’re not talking about your plastic GI Joe’s or green Army men you can buy by the dozen. Allison’s pieces depict wars, most are acquired in sets of five and grown until they consist of elaborate battle scenes complete with buildings, vegetations, animals and other time pieces. He works hard constructing each diorama, researching the war and pieces, some famous figures, then positioning each just so to resemble the scene formed in his mind based on the information and descriptions.
“The Trophy of Wales is the ultimate in toy soldiers collections,” Allison said.
Younger collectors often think of World Wars I and II as “old wars.”
“They like planes and tanks. I do too, but the more unusual ones,” Allison said.
He tends to look further backward into our nation’s history and world history, to the Mexican-American War of 1846, the Battle at the Alamo, Napolean in Egypt, colonization of India, Berlin 1938, San Juan Hill, the Battle of Abu Klea 1885, the Boer Wars, Sudan War and Crimean War.
“I look for unusual colors and intriguing wars, the way a manufacturer approaches a subject and turns it into an action scene,” he said.
He also inspects the quality of workmanship, and manufacturing, the way its constructed.
“Some are solid, older out of lead, from the 60s, spincast — centrifugal mold. New ones have a thin wall, but these are solid. From Wales are zinc alloy or tin, white metal. Most of the new ones are painted in China. New are mostly in matte as opposed to glossy. I like glossy ... Alloys are expressive, creative. But the hard metal is not nearly as posable as some of the newer models,” he said.
The colors and details are really what attract him, the uniqueness of each piece. He focuses on the soliders, but also the scenery and setting, creating dioramas posed with everything from dirt to fox hunts, a circus, a levitating man you can actually see under, cars, horse corals, giraffes, flags, gunboats, tigers, safaris, crusader cruises, boats to carry people and supplies up and down the Nile, a replica of Victoria, Indian dancers, depiction of the charge of the Light Brigade, village people selling pottery and fruit, a guy on a bed of nails, a replica of the first steam engine to haul artillery and an observation ballon. His are displayed in large cases on heavy glass with wood framing.
In fact, on one occasion he had one of his glass shelves break with the weight of the pieces placed upon it. Apparently, his unique elephants in his battle diorama are quite heavy and coupled with the other pieces were too heavy for the glass to hold. The glass broke, but luckily none of the pieces were damaged.
One particularly large and intricately unique diorama features the Delhi Dunbar celebration of 1903, a 10-day celebration attended by Edward VII’s brother, the Duke of Connaught. Allison was capitvated by the pageantry of the collection, which depicts numerous events, including Indian princes and British royalty paraded through the streets of New Delhi on elephants beginning on Dec. 29, 1902. The collection includes a variety of colorful people, props, structures, weaponry and animals, some quite intricately crafted and painted, every tiny nuance depicting a different detail of the event.
“I’ve got one set of Japanese calvary coming from the Russian-Japanese War of 1905 I looked at. If I see an unusual set and get it, space is an issue,” Allison said.
“ If I bring a new set in, I have to work it in. When I order, I’m already thinking of a way to work it into the display. It can run amok, then the question becomes what to do with it when you’re gone. I’ve looked into donating it all. There are two problems with that. Major museums and universities want a contribution, an endowment and when they have no space, they get rid of them. When they are donated to an art museum, the problem you run into is if they get in cash crunch, you’ll see collections go for grabs.”
He said that individual collectors or their families can have collections cataloged and sold at auction, but usually they go for 50 cents on the dollar. He’s visited individuals who open their own museums and other avenues, not only to check out their collections but to see what’s involved in setting up and maintaining something of the sort.
Ultimately, he’s decided to enjoy his collection, adding only if he finds sets that truly interest him, and letting the rest sort itself out later.
“It’s been a fun ride. From this advantage, I know what I’ve got. If I’m willing and want to buy in, I’m selective. I decided to heck with it. Let them clean up the mess,” he laughs, indicating his family can decide and do as they wish after he’s gone, not that he’s planning on that happening any time soon.
He says the fun is in learning the history of the pieces and arranging the dioramas as he pictures them, meeting and discussing the hobby and histories with other collectors at conventions and online at sights such as the treefrogtreasures.com website, which not only offers places to display and sell sets but also has forums for discussion among collectors about any related topic. Trade and collectors magazines such as “Old Toy Soldier” and “Toy Soldier & Model Figure” also help “keep you up to speed on what’s coming out.”
“It’s a neat thing, some really interesting people,” Allison said. “It’s mostly guys; there are usually two to three women who sell [at conventions] as a part of their business. But, it’s mostly always men.”
While he really enjoys learning about each set and making the story come to life in the display, he admits that he’s nowhere near as into that side of things as some. At some conventions, men spend days or even weeks setting up their dioramas and displays. Others enact the battles. And of course, there are also kits to paint and cast toy soldiers to fit your ideas; those he said are not his thing.
While he’s gotten many questions from many different people about his collections the most common is “Who dusts all that?”
“The answer is nobody does. They’re in glass. The oil from hands deteriorates the paint, so you wear latex gloves when handling them so there’s little dust,” Allison said.
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