By Don Sawyer
Yours truly has always found particular joy sharing human-interest narratives about real and memorable Vermonters – folks of compelling personality and achievement, people who have enriched our culture and our lives. We’ve enjoyed the cantankerous but lovable West Townshend “Old Goats” with their dry wit and country perspicuity. We’ve been inspired by mesmerizing Putney rib-master Curtis Tuff and gifted Windham woodworker Elden Mills; we’ve been awed by the business ingenuity of Manchester merchant Donald Dorr and Vermont Country Store progenitor Vrest Orton; and we’ve savored the succulent menus of the owners of such delicious destinations as the Arlington Inn, the Blue Benn Diner, T.J. Buckley’s, Chauncey’s, the Dam Diner, Dot’s, Fireworks and Top of the Hill Grill. Today we’re blessed to spend time with Townshend icon Walter Meyer, 84-year-old community legend and entrepreneurial sage.
Walter Meyer keeping company with one of the Meyer bears. (photo by Kayla Rice)
Though not a native Catamount, Walter Meyer has lived here happily since age fourteen. His mother, renowned artisan Mary Meyer, grew up in New York City, child of French and German parents. Mary was classically trained in dressmaking but freely explored other sewing venues. Walter’s father, Hans, was a World War I Prussian soldier before passing through Ellis Island and marrying Mary. Hans worked tenaciously as an award-winning Fuller Brush salesman then turned his enterprise to Mary’s highly salable pincushions.
Some of our senior readers may have memories of Mary Meyer’s famous flower-patterned, animal-shaped pincushions which appeared in 1933 at popular department stores like Kresge’s and Woolworth’s. So favored were her creations that Hans expanded sale to most of the east coast.
In 1944 Walter’s dad burned out in his marketing career and, in a quest for romantic quietude, moved his family to Wardsboro, Vermont. Here Hans dreamed of bucolic farm life but soon realized that marketing Mary Meyer products was much easier than living off the land. Yet, the family loved Vermont and was thrilled to find comfortable residence, work space and labor potential in nearby Townshend. Mary abandoned her pincushions for “oil cloth” toys, later “plush” fur animals with stuffing that progressed from excelsior (wood shavings) to cotton to rubber to rayon. Wonderful samples of these early creations can be viewed at Walter’s Route 30 Townshend museum.
A young Walter Meyer flourished in Townshend, at first a bit work-evasive but gradually an industrious horse farm roustabout. So energetic was adolescent Walter that his boss nicknamed him “Speedy” (he humorously admitted that though he loved working with horses he never actually learned to ride them!). Walter was as affable and popular then as he is today, re-elected almost annually as Leland & Gray’s class president. This warmth of personality would ultimately become his greatest asset in the business world.
Walter Meyer’s farm experience primed him for his curriculum of agriculture/animal husbandry at the University of Vermont. It also contributed to future soft animal design work. In 1953 Walter served at Fort Dix where he fused some lifelong friendships and matured considerably. He concedes, “I was a dumb Vermont kid who grew up a lot in the Army.” Upon return to Vermont, Walter observed a soft toy trade in transition. Hans had opened a branch in Germany, eventually overseen by Walter’s 19-year-old sister Lorraine. She’s lived contentedly in Bavaria ever since.
By 1960 Walter had immersed himself fully in the Mary Meyer Company and co-managed it with his mother for 25 years. Hans passed away in 1964, just as the business was becoming more competitive. Worldwide passion for stuffed animals had burgeoned exponentially since early Egyptian dolls and Teddy bears fashioned to honor Theodore Roosevelt. By 1980, plush fur fabric became exclusive and expensive. Simultaneously, cheap labor hosts in Asia began to dominate. Eventually, even Mary Meyer switched production abroad and, two years ago reluctantly closed their Townshend retail outlet.
In 1985, Walter pared his own company status to sales rep. He created and still coordinates a product site called halfpriceplush.com, a special discount milieu for overstocked items. Mary Meyer Company competes favorably against strong foreign firms and noted American outfits like Douglas Cuddle Toys, Gund, TyInc, and Vermont Teddy Bear. Internet sales are sold, and Mary Meyer products temp customers of celebrated stores like Babies Are Us, L.L. Bean, Hallmark and Nordstrom. Well past retirement age, Walter continues to log measurable hours at the computer, generating income for the company and exploring unique product design.
Walter Meyer has replaced himself at the helm with four of his six offspring. Kevin, 54, serves as president, Steven, 53 as marketing and design manager, Michael, 52, as head of warehouse and shipping, and Peter, 51, as computer guru. Son Christopher, 56, once stood in as president but now thrives in Burlington at Great Northern Stereo; daughter Linda, 49, is a successful CPA, also in Burlington. Walter boasts 18 grandchildren to whom he’s infinitely devoted.
Most emphatically, Walter proclaims that none of his business success or personal fulfillment would be possible without the strength, wisdom and commitment of his incredible wife, Elaine, who once supervised the credit department while conducting family affairs of six children! Together, Elaine and Walter have infused themselves into the community while building an international business and establishing a home where the entire family finds solace. Son Steven shared that he and other middle-aged siblings routinely drop by Elaine and Walter’s house for lunch, just as they had done as children.
Walter’s mother, company founder Mary Meyer, passed on in 1999 after 94 vibrant years. She and Hans would indeed be proud of their son’s development of the business. They’d also be pleased that all product design takes place in Townshend with a sensitive balance of traditional Teddy bear styling and whimsical contemporary caprice. Imagine Mary’s reaction to new lines like coral-colored, squishy “Scribbles©” monkeys, kittens, ponies and gators, or ultra-soft “Marshmallow Zoo©” unicorns, lambs, Dalmatians and moose, or brand new “Print Pizzazz©” giraffes, hippos, hedgehogs and seahorses, or “Flip Flop© loons, dolphins, buffalo and longhorns, or maybe even “Sweet Rascal©” frogs, puppies, roos and owls, along with “Fab Fuzz©” foxes, zebras, raccoons and elephants.
Walter has seen his company successfully enter the lucrative baby market with “WubbaNub©” infant pacifiers affixed to pastel-spotted little plush “Nuzzle-Kitties©,” “WagsPuppies©,” “Stretch-Giraffes© and “Bobber-Duckies©.” Mary Meyer Company has expanded sales of padded blankets, cuddly cushions and animal mats while introducing more audio, visual and tactile adjuncts like rattles, teething toys and musical devices The “Taggies©” collection even includes baby boutiques ( thematic packages of blankets, toys, pacifiers and rattles). Walter assured me that all products go through metal detectors, have sonic-welded eyes, receive virtually no paint, lead based or other, and are tested by independent third-party laboratories.
My tour through Mary Meyer Company’s warehouse astounded me. A Route 30 passerby simply can’t see the building’s enormity and complexity. Products are fastidiously ordered, stored, packed, stacked and readied for shipment. A sizeable workforce is necessitated. Mr. Meyer walked me to a room of deep personal meaning to him, the Mary Meyer Museum. Nostalgic pincushions, oil cloth toys, excelsior-stuffed animals and early plush pieces – many made by Mary herself – perch proudly on the shelves. I would encourage readers to make appointment for a visit, just as school groups are invited to do.
Mary Meyer Company is truly a “family business,” a three-generational composite of loyalty, labor and love. With a warm smile Steven said about Walter, “Although he took us on fishing trips, my dad was always about work; business was the life of the family.” And work Walter did, but always with compassion and humility.
Retired soft sculpture artist Dianne Shapiro of Humane Trophies stated of Walter, “About 30 years ago Walter taught me how to do production cutting of plush. That made it easier to produce Humane Trophies on a larger scale! I will always be grateful for his help.”
Townshend Dam Diner owner Stephanie Schryba added, “Walter is an ageless supporter of the people and businesses of Townshend. Since I have been here (20 years), he has a strong presence in the Townshend Business Association and is always quick to lend a hand or advice.”
When I left 84-year-old Walter Meyer after our lengthy interview, he didn’t go home for a nap … he went back to work at the computer and in transit interacted ebulliently with several employees. With similar spirit he has contributed meaningfully to countless community groups: selectboard, school committee, volunteer fire department, EMT crew, lister team, church building committee and more. And the Mary Meyer Company has shared significantly with local benefits and Grace Cottage projects. Most of all, like the 40 or so folks now on staff, many southern Vermonters have found employment due to Walter’s efforts.
Besides creating beautiful pen and ink nature drawings, Walter intends to fill his future with his family, community and business endeavors, as he has always done. We who know Walter will stand by as he forges forward, and we’ll be forever grateful for his contributions to our lives. Mr. Meyer must definitely be cited as one of our most memorable residents, a gentleman you truly must meet.
“Diner Don” Sawyer has been painting classic Americana since 1988. He’s created over 200 prints of diners, drive-ins and ‘road art,’ as well as New England scapes and scenes. His work can be viewed at his “home gallery” – Zephyr Designs, Main Street, Brattleboro – or ordered at www.dinerdon.com.