Ann Arbor's Santa Claus
Author: Grace Shackman
Date: December 1998
Albert Warnhoff made toys for kids across the state
Imagine a painted wooden man, about six inches tall, standing over a log with a bow saw. Next to him stands a little windmill. When you spin the windmill's vanes, the man's arms bend, and he appears to cut the log.
The logger was one of the handmade toys that Ann Arbor's Santa Claus, Albert Warnhoff, once gave to needy children at Christmastime. By the end of his life, in 1962, he claimed to have made 42,000 toys.
Warnhoff worked as a carpenter by day and made toys in his home workshop at night and on the weekends. He was born in 1890 and raised on a farm near Tessmer Road. He quit school young and learned carpentry on the job, first at Gill Lumber and then at Fingerle Lumber, where he worked in the custom mill shop, crafting window frames.
"He looked like one of Santa's elves," recalls Hilda Ward, who also worked at Fingerle's. "He was short and a little round. He was a nice old man, but he was different. He lived in his own little world."
"He was introspective and a loner," says Colin Fingerle, one of the owners of the company. "He wasn't the type to go out drinking with the boys."
Even with family, Warnhoff wasn't very talkative. "He was not outgoing. Fifteen minutes was a long conversation for him," says Bob Pieske, Warnhoff's nephew.
Warnhoff opened up some in his later years, after he had received many honors for his work, including citations from two governors. Harry Kelly and Kim Sigler. He told newspaper reporters that he started making toys at age eighteen when he gave a doll and cradle to a neighbor girl suffering from diphtheria. The doctor later told him that she started getting better as soon as she received his present.
"He started real small," says Colin Fingerle. "He'd turn out a few things and take them up to the hospital—but it kept getting bigger." At first, Warnhoff gave all his toys to local children who were in the hospital at Christmastime. As his production increased, he extended his generosity to children whose parents were on welfare or those who had lost their fathers in World War II. Then he began donating toys to institutions in other cities around the state, such as the Michigan School for the Blind and St. Joseph's Hospital in Detroit. To supply all those children, Warnhoff developed a mass production system, making many copies of one toy and then going on to the next.
Though Warnhoff lived in several houses in Ann Arbor, he spent his most productive years at 1315 Franklin Boulevard on the southwest side. "The whole basement was filled," recalls Pieske, "a tool here, a tool there, band saws, cutout figures. You could hardly walk through, but he knew where everything was.
"He got ideas out of the sky," Pieske says. "He was very smart in what he did. He could make things work. He saw something and said, 'This is what I want to do.' He didn't copy anyone."
Many of Warnhoff's designs, such as wagons and sleighs, reflected his farm background.
"He did good work," says Fingerle. "In today's world they might seem rudimentary, but they were passed on from generation to generation. They were glued and nailed so they wouldn't come apart."
Warnhoff used scrap wood that would otherwise have been thrown out or burned at the mill shop where he worked, but the Fingerles also donated larger pieces of wood to the cause. Muehlig and Lanphear Hardware donated paint, varnish, nails, and glue. Fay Muehlig still has some Warnhoff creations—a duck pull toy, a little chair and table—that Warnhoff gave her daughters in gratitude for their grandfather's contributions.
Service groups, church groups, and other helpful people donated tools and various supplies, as well as dolls to go with the doll furniture Wamhoff made. Young people at Slauson Junior High and the Dunbar Community Center made quilts for the dolls' beds. But Warnhoff always did all the toy-making himself. "He'd finish one year and start the next," recalls Pieske.
Fingerle remembers World War II as Warnhoff's heyday: "Toys were almost nonexistent then. All the metal was used for the war." But since Warnhoff used mainly wood, he could still work. To get around on his calls, he convinced the rationing board to give him extra gas coupons—"enough coupons to substitute adequately for reindeer," as the Ann Arbor News explained at the time.
In the last decade of his life, Warnhoff suffered from heart problems. He retired from Fingerle's in 1955, but despite failing health he kept making toys. During his last illness, a grateful public paid his hospital bills, returning his years of kindness with $3,000 in donations.
Warnhoff "looked like one of Santa's elves," says Hilda Ward, who worked with him at Fingerle's.