Kassi Garner and children Trey (center) and Shayne play at Salem’s Gilbert House.

Kassi Garner’s children never knew the man who reportedly “saved Christmas,” A.C. Gilbert, but his legacy and namesake Gilbert House Children’s Museum in Salem has transformed their lives. “Being at the Gilbert House has really let them get little tastes of possibilities and open up conversations about the what and whys of real life,” says Garner.  And now, the Gilbert House Children’s Museum, named after the Salem native, and the Oregon Cultural Trust have teamed up to make the experience even better.

Along the east bank of the Willamette River, the renovated Outdoor Discovery Area will introduce children to fundamental nature-based active learning. The outdoor play area – built in front of a huge Erector set tower as a nod to the toymaker’s greatest claim to fame –is funded in part by a $21,000 grant from the Cultural Trust. It’s all about lively recreation where interactive features like Wheels and Water, Dig and Discover, Rain and Rainbows take center stage. A.C. Gilbert believed in the value of play.

Enthralled by steel construction girders, Gilbert and his wife crafted miniature beams with which children could assemble structures… thus creating the iconic Erector Set. In 1913 he introduced it at fairs in Chicago and New York. His children’s toy took off.

During World War One, as Congress was about to halt toy production, Gilbert stepped in to persuade its members to keep the industry alive. They did.  Hence, he earned the moniker of “the man who saved Christmas.”

Gilbert obtained more than 150 patents in his life, many for foundational toys including the Erector set, toy wheels, a child’s cart, a toy submarine and more. He also patented household equipment.

The Gilbert House Children’s Museum includes the A.T. Gilbert House, built in 1887 by A.C.’s uncle; the Wilson-Durbin house, which houses a classroom and more; the 1852 Josiah L. Parrish house, moved to the site in 1990 to house exhibits and play areas; and finally, the Rockenfield House and the Little Gem Grocery Store, home to exhibits including Erector set toys.

That’s what the Gilbert House Children’s Museum is all about…play. As Executive Director Alicia Bay puts it, “Children are naturally curious about their world and our programs provide opportunities for them to explore, discover and tinker. Through creative play children learn and increase their connections to other people.”

Garner’s children, Trey and Shayne (3 and 11), don’t know the whole story. They just know that on a wet winter’s day, or a beautiful summer’s day perhaps, they have a playful haven at the Gilbert House Children’s Museum.

Story by Peter Murphy.