Henry Strout has had a puzzling hobby since he was about 4 years old, and he credits his grandfather for getting him started.

“We used to go over and visit and play cards, and he had a couple of puzzles on the kitchen table,” the Litchfield man recalled. “It was a long time before we solved one puzzle. Actually, my cousin finally broke it, and that’s how we solved it.”

Strout himself has been creating “mechanical” puzzles as far back as he can remember. “They’re all brainteasers, but when they’re made with string, we call them ‘disentanglement’ puzzles. Then there’s the kind you take apart and put together again.”

As a retired math teacher who taught middle school students in Litchfield for 26 years, Strout seized the opportunity and took puzzles into the classroom.

“After a while, they’d get broken, so I started making them more rugged and using some plastic parts that didn’t break and were even more beneficial,” he said. “Finally, I got to the point where I decided the kids should be making the puzzles.”

Strout supplied them with books and magazines with lots of ideas, telling his students they could choose a puzzle from those or come up with their own designs. He gave his students two weeks to decide what type of puzzle they’d make.

“They had to keep track of their plans, and I got them writing in their composition journals, why they picked this particular puzzle, where they got the idea, what materials they would use and how much it would cost,” he said.

His students brought their journals to his class once a week, and they’d read each other’s entries.

“The idea was to correct the journals, and the students had to sign and date them to verify that the kids had done the work,” Strout explained. Toward the end, they even needed a parent’s verification signature so their family would know what was going on in the classroom. “I also made sure the students showed me what they were doing so it wasn’t just ‘Uncle John’ who put together the puzzle. Hopefully, it would lock them into what was happening.”

He recalled one student who worked on a puzzle of two horseshoes chained together with a ring on the chain; the idea was to remove the ring.

“He told me how he got the horseshoes and his father let him use the welder but he couldn’t get the ring off, and he had to grind it apart and weld it again. The kid did this three or four times before he got it to work,” Strout said. “A second student had chosen the same puzzle, but he said his dad took it to work and one of his friends put it together. Now who learned more in that situation?”

Each student then had to present his puzzle to the class. “Then we would invite the younger students in grades K-6 to come in and sit with the older students who could show them their puzzles,” he added.

Strout may have retired, but he hasn’t stopped visiting schools with his traveling puzzle show. He’s also a member of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors who meet annually to talk about games as well as jigsaw and mechanical puzzles. He recently returned from a trip to Japan to share his interest with puzzlers across the world. Strout enjoys creating new puzzles and adapting concepts he learns about at the conventions.

A member of the United Maine Craftsmen, Strout turns a variety of materials into puzzles, including: aquarium stones, napkin rings, honey dippers, tops, toy bears and slices of wood into which he drills holes and weaves cord in the hopes of driving someone just a little bit crazy before they figure it out.

He finds that themed puzzles – fishing, softball and boating – are particularly popular at the craft shows he attends. People love to pick up a gift for someone with a certain interest, he said, and Strout himself gave out puzzles as gifts at his daughter’s wedding reception while guests were going through the receiving line.

“One of the things I like about this is the friendships you build up,” he reflected. “I’ve made some good friends, and I certainly wouldn’t have been to Europe without a purpose like this. I should have gone, but I probably wouldn’t have.”

Strout creates puzzles for all ages, but there’s one common denominator he’s noticed over the years that applies to just about everyone.

“Most people who try to solve a problem or attack a problem try harder when it doesn’t work the first time,” he said.

“It takes a lot to say, ‘I’m going in the wrong direction, and I have to back off and try another way.'”

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