For Dill brothers, it all started with Christmas train gardens

December 20, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

IT WAS in a moment of Christmas frustration, when the electrical wires and the raw cotton batting were tangling, that I gave serious thought to the little cardboard village houses I was attempting to illuminate. On the bottoms of these 5-inch-high, 1930s bungalows and railroad station was the monogram-like motto, the Dill Co., Baltimore, Dilco Toys.

In last week's column, I begged for help identifying these miniatures, whose origin had long eluded me. Presto. I soon heard from all sorts of Dills, former Dill employees and happy customers.

I learned Dill Co. was organized in the mid-1930s by three brothers, Joseph Irving Dill (the industrial designer), F. Kennard Dill (the salesman) and William Edward Dill (the accountant) in the basement of their parents' home at 4310 Ethland Ave., Forest Park.

The Dills, after initial education at All Saints School, went on to Loyola or Poly, and began making Christmas garden houses at the height of the late-1920s Baltimore Christmas garden boom. Their fastidious handwork made them the talk of Forest Park. They soon outgrew the cellar and moved to the garage and began selling their wares. Word has it that local firefighters who made and sold their own little houses did not like the Dill competition.

By the middle 1930s, the Dills' father lent them some capital, and they rented a place at 164 N. Gay St. (The building is now the M.B. Klein toy train and model house emporium.) The brothers were busy toy makers. In addition to their Christmas garden houses, they conceived, designed, produced and sold wooden airplanes, a wagon, pony cart, pull toys, a fort and a star to top a Christmas tree. They sold to local department stores and had a Fifth Avenue, New York, wholesale sales office. F.A.O. Schwarz was a customer. Even during the Depression, their houses were not cheap. They were also well made on stamping, gluing and silkscreen machines the Dills built themselves.

Their toy business dissolved entirely during World War II; playthings were not considered a defense priority. Two brothers joined the military and served with distinction; the third was unable to serve because of a punctured eardrum. After the war, the trio reunited and started a Reisterstown furniture-making business, whose line included an early television table.

Kennard Dill later worked for the Zamoiski Co. in kitchen sales. Irving went on to manage Stanco Furniture, and Edward had a career as an electro-mechanical engineer with Raytheon Co., and helped invent a powered car antenna, a CAT scanner at the Mayo Clinic and the Patriot missile defense system. All the brothers are now deceased.

Kennard's son, Thomas X. Dill, now 44, turned out to be handy with wood. He commutes daily from Port Deposit to West Baltimore's Carver Vocational-Technical High School, where he teaches cabinet-making.

"These brothers' love for each other, and their family knit them together through the decades in both professional and private life," he told me one day this week. "I have many wonderful memories of the Christmas holidays spent with my uncles and their families. From a very early age, these boys' hearts, and their dedication to one another and the family as a whole, served as the model for all of us."

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