When Willard Zeeb first set eyes on an old Adams road grader model at a sale, he knew his quest for a new farm collectible was over.
“I was looking for something small, and I thought about collecting farm toys, but the unique detail of the Adams grader really struck me,” Willard says with a broad smile. He bought that Adams grader nearly 15 years ago, and it literally smoothed the road to model collecting for the Menno, S.D., collector.
Willard’s miniature road grader – which is an early 20th century salesman’s sample – is one of three model types that he collects. Salesman’s samples were typically handmade in relatively low numbers with a single purpose in mind: They were assigned to a traveling salesman who used the miniatures to demonstrate both machinery function and construction to potential buyers. Salesman’s samples weren’t necessarily true scale models, and they cost several times the price of the full-sized machines to build.
A second model variety that has found its way into Willard’s collection is the display model. Display models serve the same function as salesman’s samples, except they were placed in a sales agent’s office or store. These models are generally larger than salesman’s samples, but like them, they were produced in small numbers and at a substantial cost.
“Salesman’s samples and display models are usually the easiest to find because more of them are out there,” Willard explains. He owns many of these models, including horse-drawn mowers, a hay rake, moldboard plows, reapers, wagons and windmills.
The third type of model that Willard cherishes is the patent model. “The only truly unique pieces are the patent models,” Willard says. “They’re hard to find because only one was made to be included with the patent application.”
Because of their uniqueness and desirability, patent models aren’t only rare, they’re quite expensive, as well. Yet, that doesn’t deter Willard, who has dedicated himself to amassing rare and unusual farm collectibles.
A patent beauty
Like many farm collectibles, some of Willard’s miniatures traveled a unique path from creation to collection. His Superior Co. grain drill model is a perfect example.
On April 20, 1882, Charles E. Patric applied for a patent on a variable force-feed grain drill mechanism that would be incorporated into Superior’s grain drill line. Included with his application was a beautifully rendered, fully functional miniature model of that mechanism built into a Superior Fertilizer Drill No. 3 model.
Patric was granted the patent on Nov. 21, 1882, and through a series of mergers, the drill eventually became the basis for the long and successful line of Oliver grain drills manufactured in the early 1930s.
The Patent Office returned the Superior drill model to Charles, which ended up in the estate sale of an employee of the Superior Drill Co. of Springfield, Ohio. Kurt Aumann of Nokomis, Ill., later purchased the drill model and sold it to Doug Frey in Omaha, Neb. Doug sold the model drill to Willard more than three years ago, who has cherished it ever since.
Willard’s patent drill model is beautifully constructed from walnut, nickel, steel, brass and gold. It features a double-distributor box for grass seed or grain. The model’s detail is amazing. Each individual shoe has an independent trip mechanism to protect it from striking rocks. The variable seeding rate adjustment is fully functional – Willard even tested it with poppy seeds – and the drive wheels are separated from the axle by individual ratchet clutches so the drill remains activated while turning a corner. Willard also owns the model’s original shipping box, complete with wax seals stamped by the U.S. Patent Office.
“The detail, craftsmanship and uniqueness of the Superior drill make it my favorite model,” Willard says. He displays the mint-condition jewel on a turntable that he built, and marvels that it’s more than 120 years old and still in perfect, original condition.
Models in the rough
Not all of Willard’s models were in near-perfect condition when he obtained them, though. Repairing models, and actually discovering how to repair them, is also a necessary passion of Willard’s. Understandably, a few of his models required major surgery.
“I don’t mind purchasing a model in rough shape,” Willard explains. “It’s fun to figure out what the (missing) parts should look like and how to make them.”
One of Willard’s favorite models is a Perkins Co. salesman’s sample windmill. When he obtained it, the significant drive hardware was intact, but the rotor, vane and part of the tower were beyond repair. Luckily, a friend of Willard’s owned a full-sized Perkins windmill, and was willing to send Willard measurements of key dimensions. Willard approximated a scale for his windmill, and then fabricated wooden parts for it from a piece of walnut lumber he found in the granary at his dad’s farm.
“I made the curved rotor frame by boiling lengths of walnut and bending them over a piece of PVC pipe,” Willard explains, “clamping them and baking them in the sun for a few hours.”
Willard cut thin pieces of walnut to fabricate rotor blades and the vane, and also cut replacement parts for the windmill’s tower from the same piece of walnut. Fabricating the rotor and the vane required making fasteners, including rivets and tiny square-headed nuts.
“Where I needed rivets, I just cut the heads off of straight pins and pressed them into holes of a smaller diameter,” Willard says. Willard used tiny machine screws for bolts and made the square nuts himself. “I cut slices of key stock and bored and tapped them to make nuts,” he adds.
Other models have received similar innovative attention. For his Buckeye reaper salesman’s sample, Willard used an acid-etching technique to make replacement chain links. The model dates to the late 1880s, and was in fair condition when Willard obtained it. A number of the original chain’s tiny links remained, which Willard used as a template to produce more.
Willard then used a custom-made stamping die to connect the links. “The whole process was expensive, but I made enough extra links to sell, which helped some,” he says. In fact, Willard enjoys bringing the rare models back to life so much that he occasionally repairs models for other collectors.
Far from mere models and miniatures, the pieces in Willard’s collection are irreplaceable works of art.
“A large part of my fascination with these models is in their craftsmanship and detail,” Willard says.
An example of that exquisite artisanship is Willard’s ingeniously packaged Manvel windmill. The treasured windmill model is a salesman’s sample, which includes its own wooden box. The box serves as a secure transport case and doubles as a base for the mill’s tower when erected. All the salesman had to do was open the box, insert the tower into the socket and place the mill head on top to demonstrate the company’s product to prospective customers.
It would’ve been difficult for most farmers to pass up a chance to purchase a Kirby horse-drawn mower in 1876 after laying eyes on Willard’s model, which gleams with rich wood and brass. The mower was eventually incorporated into the International Harvester Co.’s line in 1903. The model sports a working gearbox, pitman arm, sickle and height adjustment. Mowing machine models aren’t particularly rare, Willard says, but he likes the Kirby’s detailed components.
Some of Willard’s other miniature beauties include an Avery plow and Ithaca dump rake salesman’s samples, in addition to an incredibly intricate Emmerson-Brantingham hay loader model, built in 1919.
Willard also owns an Auburn wagon, Clay Steel Co. gate, an Indiana Steel and Wire Co. poultry net miniature and a Standard Oil Co. Mica-brand axle grease sample bucket. Willard would love to add to his collection, and is most interested in obtaining a nickel-plated hay baler model.
More than models
Models make up only a small part of the collection at the Zeeb home. Willard and his wife, Donna, have an eye for the unusual and the beautiful. Their home is nicely decorated with treasures from the past, such as lightning rods and insulators, signs, literature, and other farm memorabilia.
Willard even saved a lovely oak staircase from a building that was torn down and installed it in the house. The Zeebs provide extra heat during the bitter South Dakota winter with an old, upright cast iron parlor stove and a cast iron cook stove.
The models fit nicely into the Zeebs’ decor because they can be easily displayed, and each model comes with an historical trail of colorful literature and advertising.
“Collecting the models is fun, but finding literature relating to a particular model really adds to it,” Willard explains, while adding that his decision to collect rare miniatures has been a fulfilling avenue to satisfy his collecting bug.
Willard and Donna have enjoyed displaying the models and literature at the annual Menno Pioneer Power and Toy Show held at the Pioneer Acres park in Menno, S.D., and plan to do so next year and into the future, as well.
“This all gives Willard something to do with his seven-day weekends,” Donna points out with a loving twinkle in her eye.