One part Santa, one part toymaker

Tom Bethke of Lake Elmo first jumped into the Santa role as a student at Hill-Murray High School 40 years ago. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
Tom Bethke of Lake Elmo first jumped into the Santa role as a student at Hill-Murray High School 40 years ago. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
For the past 5 years, Tom Bethke has turned his woodworking skills, learned from his father, into Kringle Workshop on ETSY. (Linda Baumeister/Review)
For the past 5 years, Tom Bethke has turned his woodworking skills, learned from his father, into Kringle Workshop on ETSY. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Tom Bethke knows holiday cheer best

Few know Santa Claus better than the white-beard-clad Lake Elmo resident Tom Bethke, who has dedicated the last 40 years to spreading holiday cheer while dressed in full costume. He’s a celebrity in downtown Hudson, Wisconsin, along with area hospitals, holiday parties and other events.

When he’s not listening to Christmas wish lists, Bethke is whittling away at wooden toys inside the Kringle Workshop, located next to his Lake Elmo home.

After decades of gifting his handmade trucks, planes and airplanes, he’s selling his sturdy keepsakes on Etsy, an online marketplace.

He’s currently finishing up his two final special orders of the season, just in time for Santa’s much-anticipated delivery.

Asked if the pressure of the holiday deadline strains his relationship with Santa, Bethke says, “We’re best friends. Does Santa get stressed? No. This is his job.

“Tom does, a little bit,” he adds with a laugh.

A family craft

Bethke’s talent for woodworking can be traced back to his father, whose handcrafted toys can still be found inside the Kringle Workshop.

“My father was a wonderful woodworker,” Bethke says. “He taught me almost everything I know about using the woodworking machines, shaping the wood and everything. He’s pretty much my inspiration.”

For years, Bethke enjoyed woodworking as a hobby while he pursued a parallel destiny as Santa Claus. He first got into character during a high school charity event and the role stuck.

One gig led to the next and eventually he began attending Santa Claus School in Michigan.

With Christmas season in full swing, Bethke doesn’t have much time to rest between completing toy orders and making special guest appearances.

When he’s not in the public eye, he’s recharging inside his toyshop, his creative haven.

“It’s a large, heated, three-and-a-half car garage,” he says. “There’s an upstairs to it, where I store things when I get done. And I pack everything for shipping myself.”

Building a business

With experience as a professional designer and builder for live theater and display artist for corporate events and trade shows under his belt, Bethke makes sure his toy making operation runs smoothly.

He prides himself on the care that goes into crafting each handmade toy — everything from the quality of the natural pine, oak, birch and maple wood used, to the dowels and glue used to assemble the parts and a well-sanded finish.

During peak production season, he says he likes to build six like toys at a time, picking up each morning wherever he left off the night before. He makes wooden bulldozers, garbage trucks, airplanes, army tanks, freight train, off-road Jeeps and more, all priced around $60 on Etsy. He’ll even take custom orders.

Since joining Etsy in 2102, he says his business has seen some growth each year.

“I get lots of nice feedback from people,” he says. “They like my stuff. They like the idea it’s natural wood, doesn’t take batteries, and that it’s powered by the imagination.”

The old-fashioned appeal of his toys adds to the charm of his collection. Each one is marked by a Kringle Elf logo burned on the bottom.

He says he’s begun receiving orders from buyers in Europe, but he’s not yet up to tackling the challenge of dealing with international shipping standards — a hurdle best left to Santa, perhaps.

For now, he’s content supplying heirloom quality toys to good little boys and girls in North America.

“I enjoy being Santa Claus during the [holiday] season, and I enjoy making the toys for people,” he says. “It’s kind of neat to know that my toys will be under the tree in the morning. And if they take care of the toy, it may still be around years and years from now, after I’m gone — and that’s kinda nice.”

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Comment Here