Mysteries are fun. They become especially interesting when you become part of the investigation and the subject matter involves an unchartered territory of toy train history.
I was recently contacted regarding an intriguing accessory, owned by Bert Schuck, that is often on tour with the SGMA, the Standard Gauge Modular Association. As pictured above, it's an impressive miniature NYC skyline that dwarfs Standard Gauge trains. Mr. Schuck must be rightfully proud to be the owner.
So what's the story on this thing? Well, let's start with the label:
First off, it refers to the Woolworth Building as being the tallest in the world. Immediately we're talking somewhere between 1914 and 1928. Bert Schuck says the portals are the same size as Lionel's Hellgate Bridge. If Mr. Shasteen used the Hellgate as his clearance template then we're dating the tunnel to the late 1920s.
Whatever its age, Bert Schuck has done extensive research in the toy train world and knows of one other existing example of the NYC version Burplaspa tunnel. Truly, his tunnel defines rare.
Some may call it crude but I find the structure to have loads of charm. Per the label it's a "Burplaspa Miniature" which I presume is a concoction of BURlap, PLASter and PAste (or PAint)? Bert Schuck says his example is made of plaster and is probably burlap reinforced, hence the name. Another Burplaspa Miniature was on eBay last November in the form of a small O gauge tunnel seen below.
Have you ever tried to Google Burplaspa? You don't stray too far from the tinplate pool with regards to hits. The real desire was to find some vintage advertisements for all things Burplaspa but so far no luck.
Fortunately there was better luck found searching for Don Shasteen, the manufacturer of the above tunnels. Who was he, what did he do, how long did he do what he did, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?
Here's what I can tell you about Mr. Don Shasteen thus far:
He was born Donald Otis Shasteen on May 26, 1890 in Napoleon, Ohio to Harvey and Sidney Jane Shasteen. Don was the second youngest of eight children. According to the 1910 Census Sidney Jane was now head of the household with children Will, a printer; Charlie, a candy maker; Cora, who worked from home; Don, an actor and Edith, who was of school age.
By Spring 1918 Don enlisted in the Army and quickly rose to the rank of Sargeant until his honorable discharge on December 10, 1918. In 1924 he wed Fern Elizabeth Struble. Fern served as Don's bookkeeper at the studio. Together they had one child, a daughter named Bonny Fern.
Don's wife passed away in 1946. Don Shasteen passed away in 1955, exactly two weeks after his 65th birthday.
The daughter, Bonny, would later devote herself entirely to early childhood development until her final year of life.
Publicly, there is little to be found, so far, about the Don Shasteen Studio other than some miniatures, furniture and jigsaw puzzles that can be found on the internet.
The greatest amount of information about Don Shasteen came from his daughter's obituary in 2006:
"Don O. Shasteen, former Toledo, OH artist, interior designer and decorator, furniture and novelty manufacturer, old time Vaudevillian star with the Flying Ashtons, and acrobat...
"Bonny grew up during the 1930's in Toledo, OH on the old Brown homestead at Miami and Jay Sts., and then in the 1940s and '50s in Texas, OH on the Maumee River at a home her father built. Her father Don maintained his studios and factories next to the family's homes at both locations from the 1920s through the 1950s. Bonny spent much of her time with her father, watching him work at his studios and factories, and he greatly influenced her outlook on life."
Surely such a proud summary of Don is a result of many stories Bonny told to her children.
More to come...
I want to thank Bert Schuck for reaching out to me when I failed to do so. He provided wonderful insight regarding his treasure and his photos really illustrate a grand piece of prewar history. Please check and see where the SGMA will be appearing and perhaps you'll be fortunate enough to see it for yourself.