One day at a farm auction, Jim Swenson of Hancock, Minn., noticed three boxes of agricultural literature for sale — tractor manuals, tractor brochures, and other assorted farm memorabilia. 'The way the auction was going,' the 44-year-old says, 'the auctioneer wouldn't get to it until 7 p.m., and I had a toy show in Mason City, Iowa, the next day.' So Jim told the auctioneer he couldn’t stay for long and offered to open the bid at $300 if the boxes were brought up soon.
The auctioneer asked the crowd if he should piece out the items or take bids on the entire load. Jim chuckles as he recalls the scene. 'A guy in the audience yelled, 'If you don't take the bid that's offered, both you and the bidder are fools.' When I walked up to get the boxes, there was a low mutter in the crowd, everybody wondering about this guy who would pay that much money for something like that, but I was grinning from ear to ear.'
The next day at Mason City, Jim and his father, Lyle, sold a quarter of the boxes' contents, including Oliver Hart-Parr and Farmall F-20 literature in mint shape. 'We made a lot of money off those boxes of literature,' Jim says. The proceeds allowed them to support their 'habit' of collecting farm literature and other farm-related items.
Jim grew up on an 800-acre farm near Hancock, Minn., where the family grew corn and soybeans, and fed beef cattle, feeder cattle, and hogs. After leaving the farm in 1984, Jim worked pouring concrete. He and a friend also bought out a toy farm truck business, and named it B&S Parts. When the partner didn't have time for the business, Lyle bought in. 'The B&S can stand for a lot of things,' Lyle says with a grin. 'But we usually think of it as 'The Big Swedes.''
Farm literature first became a staple for the pair at a 1989 farm toy auction in Yankton, S.D., Jim says, where he got stuck with a box of farm literature for $13. Three shows later, after removing pieces for their own collection, only half of the box's contents remained, and Jim decided he would try to get more.
That required a mammoth effort, traveling to farm auctions, thresherees, toy shows, flea markets and defunct implement dealerships - anywhere old pieces of farm literature (as well as tractor manuals, farm signs, calendars, and many other types of farm-related items) might be for sale. 'For four years in a row, dad and I went our separate ways to shows,' Jim says, 'so each year we did 72 shows.' Sometimes that meant driving 400 miles the night after one toy show to get to another. 'We only do about two dozen a year now,' he adds.
Finding materials for their collection is tougher now than ever, Jim says. 'You end up buying what comes up for sale.' His favorites are tractor manuals. 'People who buy tractor manuals are going to use them to work on their tractors, so they'll get thumbed through a lot, which means they're not as concerned about the condition of the manuals.' The best manuals have come from dealerships that have closed in Nebraska and the Dakotas, Jim says.
Over the years, collector interests in farm literature and memorabilia have shifted. 'What's changed is what is no longer being bought,' Jim notes. 'When we started, people were really interested in threshing machines and tractors from the 1920s and 1930s, but the people who could relate to those old steam tractors and threshing machines are mostly gone now, so the interest in that kind of stuff is too.' Instead, literature for four-wheel tractors is quite popular nowadays, Jim says. Literature for the Allis-Chalmers Landhandler 440 four-wheel drive tractor, for instance, has become hard to find.
Rare pieces are higher-priced now, which is no surprise, but Jim says he doesn't keep a lot of rare items in his collection. 'If it's a rare piece, I like to keep it for a while so I can look at it,' he says. Instead, most of the materials in his collection have a personal connection. 'Because we had a particular piece of equipment when I was growing up on the farm, that's what I'm interested in. I have a lot on the International 560, 1466 or Farmall M tractors. That's the type of stuff I keep for myself.' Many collectors are doing the same thing, he says, finding items they can relate to personally.
Up in Smoke
Common pieces are difficult to move or trade, partly because of the proliferation of literature on eBay. And because most collectors limit the amount of common pieces in a collection, it tends to pile up, especially for the Swensons, who periodically buy large collections.
Lyle recalls a time when they had so much paper piled up they needed a novel way to get rid of it. He found out about a local fire department that was going to torch a rural house as part of a training exercise. Lyle got permission to haul hundreds of duplicate manuals, brochures and other items to the site. 'We filled the bottom floor of the house with machinery manuals,' Lyle says.
News travels fast in rural communities, and the B&S boys are well-known as literature collectors. Soon, a man breathlessly reported to them that there was an old house just out of town that the fire department was going to burn down, and the bottom floor was just covered with manuals. If they got out there quick, they could load up all the manuals they wanted. 'There's really a lot of them,' he said. Of course Lyle had to inform him that they were his and he was trying to get rid of the pile of items.
Perhaps the toughest part of the hobby is the education. Jim says he's learned a lot from his mistakes. 'That's how you learn the most. Years ago, at times, I figured I got a heck of a deal on some literature, only to find out most of it was reproduction stuff. I figure I've pretty much made every mistake you can possibly make, but in the long run it's paid off, because now I know what's reproduction stuff and what isn't.' Some reproductions are easy to identify, he says, like the dated items from the John Deere Two-Cylinder Club, and materials for the Ford 8N and 9N made in California. Those items clearly state the literature is reproduced under license from Ford Motor Co.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
In addition to literature, the Swensons work with farm-related signs. 'I've had some really terrific ones over the years,' Jim says, 'some nice Oliver signs, a B.F. Avery neon sign and a Minneapolis-Moline neon sign.'
His collection includes a circa-1912 De Laval Local Agency cream separator sign off a building in North Dakota, and an unusual International Trucks blackboard sign, probably used in a shop to announce specials on oil filters, or to schedule the day's work.
Finding signs has become more and more difficult, Jim says. But if you have a couple of small farm signs on your table at a show, he adds, people will bring theirs in and ask if you're interested in buying them. 'Just last night, matter of fact, I got a call from a guy who has an old two-sided Oliver sign from the early 1950s that I need to go look at. People come to us just from the exposure you get from going to shows, and through word-of-mouth.'
The Swensons also deal in calendars, which they find at farm auctions. Collectible calendars give historical context and information about farm machinery and manufacturers. Many provide information on complete lines for a given year. 'The 1950 Minneapolis-Moline calendar we have is interesting because when you open it up,' Jim notes, 'there's a foldout that contains the different Minneapolis-Moline machinery in it.'
People in different areas of the country are interested in different brands and types of literature, manuals and memorabilia, Jim says. 'Like Case in North Dakota and Montana. Some places are real strongholds for Allis-Chalmers, and of course if a show is a brand show, you have lots of interest in that particular brand.' John Deere and International Harvester items are in demand all over, but the IH items are the most popular of all, Jim says, perhaps because there aren't many John Deere pieces around anymore. 'That stuff has been pretty well picked up.'
Jim has noticed a difference in the people looking for farm literature and memorabilia at farm toy shows versus those at threshing bees. 'At farm toy shows, it's not the memorabilia collector, but rather the person who sees an item on our table and says, 'Dad used to have one of those,' or who wants sales literature for a John Deere 560 tractor to put on the shelf behind his toy tractor.' At threshing bees, he says, buyers are more likely to be active collectors.
Ten Thousand and Growing
Jim says he and his dad have about 10,000 pieces of farm literature, manuals, calendars, farm memorabilia and other farm-related items in their collection. But he's just guessing: The collection hasn't been catalogued, and at this point, won't be. 'It would take too much time to draw it up,' Jim says. 'It's an out-of-control hobby, and if it ever gets to the point where you have to treat it as a full-time job, it's time to quit. I enjoy it as a hobby. I don't want to do it for a living. My dad and I really enjoy the people and traveling around the Midwest. We've had a lot of fun finding the stuff.' In fact, Jim says he still gets a rush out of finding something new and different. 'If I go to a show and see some stuff on a table, or have somebody walk up to me with some stuff, it just makes me shake.'
Some of the oldest items in the Swenson collection include John Deere pocket ledgers from 1883 and 1884, Buffalo Pitts steam engine literature from the 1890s and a McCormick-Deering sign from the 1890s. Other unusual items include a cardboard globe showing Caterpillar tractors, from about 1929 or so, and a Minneapolis-Moline billfold, perhaps given as a premium.
It's an enjoyable hobby, say both collectors. 'Dad and I are both people persons,' Jim says, 'so the number one thing is going to a show and visiting with the public, and with other collectors who come to the show.'
The working relationship between father and son has its ups and downs, but the two are mature enough to step back and straighten things out. 'Plus,' Lyle says with a laugh, 'I've discovered over the years that I can't whip him anymore, so we have to get along.' FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys.