Johnnie Ruth and Wiley Garland set off for Atlanta on a Thursday morning from their Walland home, and what should have taken them mere hours ended up being seven days.
It was a hoot of a trip, Wiley Garland recalls.
“We left on a Thursday and it was Wednesday before we got to Atlanta,” he said. “We went through Lenoir City and headed to Nashville and then decided to go on down to Alabama and turned east. We took the side roads.”
There was too much fun in discovering backroads America, Garland explained. Johnnie Ruth, who passed away at the age of 80 a couple of years ago, despised interstate travel. And besides, she was on a mission.
Back in 1992, the couple lost their son, Steve, who was in his mid-20s at the time he was shot to death, The Daily Times’ archives state. Garland said they began going to yard sales and flea markets to just get out of the house. That’s when Johnnie Ruth developed a passion for collecting tiny souvenirs — the toys given away in McDonald’s Happy Meals.
“She just got to looking for them and getting them for her grandkids,” Garland said. “We got a lot of them at yard sales and we ate a few Happy Meals, too.”
Today, these tokens of the past are displayed on shelves at the Garland home in Walland. Johnnie Ruth amassed a huge collection so Garland built her a place to put them. He said the oldest ones are from the 1970s.
Take a look around and favorite Disney characters stand out: Bambi, Baloo the Bear from “Jungle Book,” Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” and all of the ones from “Snow White.” Kermit the frog has his place on the shelves, along with the Berenstain Bears. Some of the yard sale finds still have the price tags attached.
Garland remembers the craze over Beanie Babies. McDonald’s had a tiny version as Happy Meal toys.
Grab and go
“People would swarm in there,” he said. “They would take out the toy and leave the Happy Meal sitting on the table. They didn’t want the meal. They wanted the toy.”
Roben Richmond, 33, is the Garlands’ granddaughter. She remembers going on these outings. She has two young daughters of her own, Tatum and Marley, who love to play with the figurines. Richmond’s love of thrifting remains to this day.
There are even different versions of the same McDonald’s toy, she pointed out. One might have on a blue necktie and another, a yellow one. One might have an added feature, like a butterfly. Some are worth close to $100 now.
Garland pointed out one that came from Canada and another from Virginia. “I think I gave a quarter for this one and 50 cents for that one,” he said.
The hundreds on the shelves that are neatly arranged are only a sampling of what Johnnie Ruth collected. There are many others bought as Happy Meals that are still in the plastic packaging, stored elsewhere.
“She even collected the 101 Dalmatians,” Garland said. “There were 101 of them.”
One leads to another
McDonald’s characters like Grimace and the Hamburglar are part of this collection, along with Ronald McDonald. Garland said a McDonald’s watch attests to his wife’s fascination with all things related to the fast-food chain.
“She would be at a yard sale and digging through a box of things that were a quarter or 50 cents,” he said of his wife’s treasure hunting. “They would tell her she could have the whole box for a few dollars and she would take it.”
Richmond said the sellers just wanted the stuff gone. “They didn’t realize the value,” she said. “It was junk to them but that was treasure to Mamaw.”
It wasn’t the food that attracted Johnnie Ruth. Both Garland and Richmond said she didn’t care that much for the kids’ meals. They admit to feeding some of the Happy Meal contents to the family dog on occasion.
“We did eat our weight in McDonald’s food,” Richmond said.
Garland admitted he had to add tomatoes and onions to his to make them more palatable.
It’s all about memories
Johnnie Ruth stopped her yard sale hunting around 2006 when she became ill. The collection has remained with her husband so grandkids can enjoy it. Garland said the shelves are full of memories from a time when he and his wife just took to the road less traveled at their own curious pace.
Sometimes they would pick up their copy of The Daily Times on a Saturday and plan a route of yard sales to visit close to home.
“I like to read,” Garland said. “Old books, not new ones. I would take me a book and the Maryville Times and Knoxville paper and work the puzzles. She would go to the sales and start looking. If I didn’t see anything I wanted, I would go back to the car and read. Let her look as long as she wanted.”
These two haven’t counted the number of miniature toys in the collection. There are Cabbage Patch doll figures, Tiny Toons characters, Peanuts characters and so much more. To most people, they are just plastic toys. To Garland and Richmond, they point to happy times when they struck out on the road together with carefree intentions.
They can talk about trips to Canada or the next door neighbor’s.
Garland described his wife as someone who loved working in her flower garden, who could handily operate a Bush Hog on their lot and who cared deeply for children. The couple were married for 55 years.
Richmond said she was a gentle soul who loved everyone and taught others to be kind through her own actions.
“My mamaw was just so simple, so happy,” Richmond said. “This made her happy. To add to her collection. She viewed the world as simple, nice and fun. This all started out because of a tragedy but this was her happy place.”