By: Zoe Hebert
Twisted wire toy maker and Louisiana Tradition Bearer Elvin Shields of Natchitoches will be among those inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center Hall of Master Folk Artists at this year’s Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival. Shields will be displaying his handmade toys at the festival. The 42nd Annual Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival will be held from 9 a.m.-10 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 in Prather Coliseum at 220 South Jefferson Street on the NSU campus. Admission is $10 for the entire day, $6 after 5 p.m., and free for children ages 12 and under. The induction will be around 11:15 a.m. on the main stage on the floor of Prather Coliseum.
Shields was born into a family of sharecroppers in December 1949 on Melrose Plantation. Much of his early life revolved around demanding physical labor in the plantation fields. He stated that most children on the plantation started working at around five years old, as soon as they could carry a cotton sack. He had little leisure time, only Saturday afternoons and Sundays after church. In those hours of spare time, Shields was free to entertain himself by hunting, fishing, and making and playing with his toys. Growing up, his family didn’t have the money to buy toys, as was the case with other sharecropper and tenant farmer families. As a result, the children made their own toys out of objects they found or recycled.
“It’s a poor thing, it’s nothing to do with art,” Shields explained. “Kids need to have toys, so they find some old wire, and they twist them up. But it’s something that came from Africa.”
According to Shields, certain tribes in Africa did, and still do, play with wire and make toys. The toymaking tradition was carried along with the slaves as they were taken to the United States and passed down through the generations. He explained that only the kids who lived at the plantations in southern Natchitoches parish learned and practiced twisting wire into toys. He considers the creation of these toys as a way of fulfilling a need rather than as art to be bought and sold.
The shapes the wire toys take are specific to the children making them. Shields stated that he and the other children living on the plantation would twist the everyday sights they had come to recognize, such as tractors, mules, cows, and horses. Some of Shields’ other toys depict sharecroppers plowing the fields, dragging cotton sacks and hunting with dogs. Each of these toys not only provided a means of entertainment for plantation children, but they provide an image of what the children saw and experienced at the time.
“It’s whatever a kid sees, that’s what he twists. He’s twisting his environment,” Shields said.
There has been less interest from young people in learning the tradition of wire twisting to make toys in recent years. Shields attributes the decline in interest in the making of wire toys for fun with the rise in technology and the reduction in space for children to play. He explained that he and the other plantation children would play outside in the sand with their twisted wire toys and marbles.
“We would do our tractors or our mules, and we would go sit out in the sand,” Shields reflected. “There wasn’t no beautiful lawns on the plantation. There was just sand around the house.”
Making toys out of wire was a necessity for the boys living on the plantation. Children needed toys, but without the money to purchase them from shopping catalogues, they had to make their own. The method of wire twisting was shared between the boys of each generation, with the older boys teaching the younger. For some time, Shields did demonstrations with children to teach them how to twist wire, but most kids were distracted by modern entertainment and weren’t interested in learning.
Shields took the toymaking tradition back up again in 2011, after his retirement, when he began volunteering at the Cane River National Historical Park. As a volunteer, he led demonstrations and talked about the history of Black sharecroppers in southern Natchitoches Parish. The history and culture of Black plantation workers is often forgotten or ignored in favor of the more commonly seen white history, and through his lectures and toymaking, Shields seeks to keep that history alive and raise awareness of the contributions Black Americans have made in the development of Louisiana and the country as a whole.
“Nobody is telling the story,” Shields said. “That’s why I volunteered there, I lecture to groups from all over the world, to tell the real story. Otherwise, the real story is going to be forgotten about.”
Today, Shields still gives talks on the history of Black sharecroppers at the national park, and he has collaborated with NCPTT to produce YouTube lectures reflecting on his experiences as a child in a sharecropper family. He has also released two books describing his experiences and documenting his knowledge of plantation toys. He is determined to ensure that their history, which has been largely overlooked for decades, is not erased. His perspective on the subject and his understanding of its importance have led to Shields being named a Louisiana Tradition Bearer. This integral piece of Louisiana’s history lives on in the toys Shields makes and the tradition that the craft comes from.
Shields stated he is looking forward to this year’s folk festival and the interactions he will have with festivalgoers. He said, “I like the music, I like the food, and it’s just a great atmosphere. And I like to look at the other folk artists’ stuff. It’s a delight.”
For complete festival details, visit www.nsula.edu/folklife or call (318) 357-4332.
Support for the Festival is provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., the Louisiana Division of the Arts, the Louisiana Office of Tourism, the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council.