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In 80th year, Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund seeks $80,000

— Eighty years ago this week, a child mailed in a single coin to the Gazette, “tightly folded in a piece of a paper,” according to a newspaper account at the time. The money, the child wrote that Thanksgiving week, was for “the poor children” to have something during the holidays.

Weeks later, on Dec. 19, 1933, a larger gift arrived with an anonymous letter that read, “Accept this two dollars for the children’s fund. It is the first two dollars I have earned in some time.”

These were among the first reported contributions to the Gazette’s storied toy fund, which the newspaper began sponsoring during the Great Depression. Today it is known as the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

As the drive enters its 80th holiday season, the work that goes on behind the scenes has evolved, but the generosity that fuels its mission — to serve the neediest families of Hampshire and southern Franklin counties during the holidays — continues unchanged.

“It remains the same,” said Gazette Publisher James Foudy. “The poor are always with us.”

“We have seen the last couple years that the needs seem to continue to be very strong,” he added. “It’s important to remind people of the need.”

The toy fund takes its name from Sidney F. Smith, a former business manager at the Daily Hampshire Gazette and wallpaper hanger who came to Northampton from Milton in 1929 and stayed here for the rest of his life.

Smith, who died in 1973 at age 84, was known for his cheery demeanor and generosity. He was a World War I veteran who served as a cook overseas and became an active civic and business leader in Northampton.

His lasting legacy would be the Gazette’s toy fund, which he spearheaded in 1933, “because he was conscious that many who had suffered through the Depression had very little to spend for their children’s Christmas presents,” Foudy said.

“It’s kind of a community institution,” Foudy said. “It just happens. It’s pretty cool to be part of something that’s been going for so long in the same way that has such importance to people in the community.”

The goal of raising $200 was set in the toy fund’s inaugural year. Unlike today’s fund, in which vouchers are provided to needy families to buy presents at participating local stores, the donations in 1933 were used to collect and repair old toys. These gifts were wrapped and distributed to hundreds of children throughout the area. Candy and oranges were also part of the gift-giving then, according to old newspaper reports.

The entire community and various organizations were involved, including Children’s Aid and Family Services, now known as Berkshire Children and Families, which still participates in the fund today. The organization determines families’ eligibility for vouchers.

“They do a remarkable job,” Foudy said of the social service organization, which has offices in Hadley. “This is not their job. They jump in and volunteer. They start back in September.”

And the calls from families seeking vouchers start coming in October at the Gazette, where nearly every department plays some role in administering and promoting the toy fund.

In 1933, the toy fund was launched amid the backdrop of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a vast federal recovery program that draws parallels to today’s government response to the Great Recession. Adolf Hitler had ascended to power as Germany’s dictator and Calvin Coolidge died in Northampton that year, leaving Herbert Hoover as the only living ex-president of the time.

Scorchy Smith, The Dillys and Homer Hoopee dominated the funny pages.

Food prices? Turkey and mixed nuts both ran approximately 25 cents per pound, potatoes were 29 cents a peck and squash was found at 3 pounds for 10 cents at one store and 2 pounds for a nickel at another, according to Gazette reports at the time.

This week in November 1933, Smith College’s purchasing department made known that it had ordered 2,000 pounds of turkey, “so that students remaining at the college will not forgo the traditional turkey dinner.”

During the same week, it was announced that a federally funded program would provide jobs to 98 unemployed men in Northampton cutting hardwood trees and brush around the city’s reservoirs, building up the city’s massive dike to prevent flooding and working to control gypsy moths.

As that newsy year came to a close, the Gazette’s efforts to help local families who were struggling was one of the final and brighter stories of the year. The fund exceeded its goal, raised $228, and provided toys to 1,385 children.

Eleven deputy Santa Clauses had left the People’s Institute on a Saturday night in trucks with toys, “newly painted, repaired and each tagged with the name of the child who was to get them,” the Gazette reported.

The fund had passed its goal by noon on Dec. 20, 1933, and among those helping in the final days with donations was Northampton Mayor Homer C. Bliss.

“Although plenty of used toys have been brought in this week, a shortage of dolls was found and it was necessary to buy some from the fund money,” the Gazette reported. “Other money buys paint, twine, paper, brushes, labels, wood for repairing, candy and oranges.”

The toy fund donations were strong during the Great Depression, and that legacy continues 80 years later. Last year, the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund raised $74,120, nearly reaching the set goal of $75,000. The Gazette sent out 1,912 vouchers to local families.

This year, the toy fund needs to raise $75,000 to $80,000 and about $3,000 exists to start, largely from donations that have come in throughout the year.

“There are a lot of return donors every year and a lot of people who give for the first time,” Foudy said. “I love the stories of people who donate because they were once recipients. They turn around and give back.”

The Gazette’s Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund provides certificates redeemable at participating local retailers to eligible families who can use them to buy holiday gifts through Dec. 31. The fund distributes certificates worth $40 to families for each child age 1 to 14. Eligible families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett.

Berkshire Children and Families, at 220 Russell St., Hadley, verifies the income eligibility of families. Most families who receive assistance are referred by social service agencies. The Gazette covers all costs of the toy fund.

The following stores are participating this year: A2Z Science and Learning Store, Northampton; Deals & Steals, Northampton; Faces, Northampton; F.J. Rogers, Florence; JCPenney, Hadley; Mountain Goat, Northampton; The Toy Box, Amherst; Wilson’s Department Store, Greenfield; and Target, Hadley.

Donations to the toy fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 115 Conz St., Northampton, MA 01060 or Gazette offices at 67 Main St., Easthampton, and 9 East Pleasant St., Amherst.

Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

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