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Nostalgia often a driving factor when farmers collect toys
 
By William Flood
Ohio Correspondent

In late November, world-class auctioneer Mecum Auctions held a scale model tractor sale, with winning bids often exceeding $100. It came on the heels of the National Farm Toy Show in Iowa which attracted over 5,000 attendees. Events like these beg some questions – why are farm toys so popular, and why in large part, are farmers driving the interest?
Farm toys have been manufactured since the 1800s. Some of the first were made just after the Civil War by New Hampshire’s Wilkins Toy Co. The cast iron replicas of horse-drawn implements made their way into the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Two other manufacturers – Hubley in Pennsylvania and Arcade in Illinois – started making farm toys around 1880.
Things really took off after World War II when Fred Ertl, operating out of the basement of his Iowa home, pioneered detailed replicas of full-sized tractors. One of his first was a scale-model International Harvester. Eventually, tractor companies from John Deere to Oliver established licensing agreements with toy manufacturers to produce scale models of their machines.
Collecting toy tractors started gaining popularity in the 1970s. That’s when Iowa farmer Claire Scheibe, a collector himself, started a newsletter to support collectors. Now a full magazine, “The Toy Farmer” is considered the industry’s bible. Scheibe also helped launch the National Farm Toy Show in Ertl’s backyard of Dyersville, Iowa. It has become the largest farm toy event in the country. Dyersville also became home to the National Farm Toy Museum, which houses 30,000 models.
That offers some backdrop but doesn’t answer the question of why people – particularly farmers – are drawn to these toys. For many, the answer is nostalgia. What kid growing up on a family farm didn’t receive a toy tractor as a gift? As adults, they often reminisce about carefree days in the sand pile and try to re-acquire a long-lost treasure.
That’s what happened with Ohio dairy farmer Fred Hippley. He started playing with toy tractors as a young farm boy. His first was a sand-cast Ertl 1/16-scale John Deere Model A. In an interview for Farm and Dairy, he said that collecting toy tractors, “reminds me of a simpler time when I grew up on the farm.” Today, his garage is filled with over 450 models and even a few pedal tractors.
Other farmers amass models of what they use in the field. Indiana corn farmer Pete Ellingsworth started collecting Case models because he was from a Case-using family. Collectors’ loyalty to brands like Farmall or International is typically evidenced by their shelves.
Whether starting from reminiscing or brand affinity, farm toy collecting can quickly become an obsession. For many, like Nebraska farmer Norm Mortensen, who’s been collecting for 35 years, it becomes a lifelong pursuit. After the first couple of acquisitions, the preoccupation often gets driven by the thrill of the hunt, winning at auction, or horse trading with dealers.
The longer one collects, the higher bar often moves toward rarer pieces. Josh Aycock, organizer of the Northwest Alabama Farm Toy Show, said in the ALFA Farmers Journal, “You have serious collectors who will drive all day and spend hundreds of dollars for a rare tractor.”
That demand is pushing up prices, which for the rarest examples can be meteoric. At this year’s National Farm Toy Show, a circa-1900 John Deere cast-iron model sold for over $10,000. It’s hard to imagine people paying as much – or more – for an old toy as they would for the real thing.
The vintage toy tractor market is also fueling sales of new releases, including limited-edition collectibles. According to Bill Walters, senior vice president of Tomy’s Ertl Division, “We are spending millions of dollars on new tooling and product releases across various scale model sizes…We have 130-plus new items planned for 2024.”
A good place to start collecting is at a farm toy show like the national event in Dyersville, or those now held in nearly every state. Dealers offer models for virtually every brand of tractor, from Allis-Chalmers to Komatsu. And, they’re available in various sizes – from tiny 1/87-scale, smaller than a Matchbox car, to the graspable 1/16-scale, to pedal tractors that can be ridden. Models of farm implements and heavy equipment are also represented.
For regular attendees, comradery at the shows is as treasured as the toys. Other memories are made when parents bring their children trying to inspire their interest in the hobby. Daniel Gray, organizer of Alabama’s Harvest of The Valley Farm Toy Show suggested, “It’s a great way for parents to spend quality time with their children.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell who has more fun, the parents or the kids.
Those young visitors may be vital to the farm toy industry. As lifelong collectors downsize, the continued popularity of farm toys rests in the hands of subsequent generations. For now, things don’t seem to be slowing down. Plenty of young farmers want replicas for their shelves and reminisce about idle days plowing through the dirt with their own diecast toys.
12/5/2023