Chasing Farm Literature

Collectors find old farm literature irresistible and invaluable.
Bill Vossler
May 2000
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Farm literature can be collected for many reasons: to prove who invented what first; to accurately build or restore real machinery or farm toys; for information; to keep up with a particular line of machinery; for nostalgia; for the value of the literature; for profit; or simply for the love of it. But whichever poison is yours, most collectors will agree with Clarence Goodburn's wry statement. "It's a sickness, and there's no inoculation for it," the Madelia, Minn., man laughs. 

Is Too! Is Not! Is Too!...

Quint Precht of rural Hector, Minn., says he began to collect farm literature to prove which products were invented first. As he was growing up, the majority of the farmers in his family's area used John Deere tractors.

"But we were the oddballs with the orange, Allis-Chalmers tractors," he says, "because we had had good luck with them."

John Deere lovers gave him a rough time, and jeered at Quint's defense of Allis-Chalmers.

"I said, 'I can show you something here in literature to prove that Allis-Chalmers came up with ideas before John Deere thought of them.' Allis had a lot of things first. In the 1940s they worked on a skid-steer tractor; a couple of years later, they added a bucket to it and made the first skid-steer loader. It didn't work out for them because they were trying to use it as a field tractor. The power-director clutch is an Allis-Chalmers first, allowing you to shift between two speeds without the clutch. I used my farm literature to show people who didn't believe me that Allis-Chalmers was sometimes just too far advanced for their time."

He says he has about 100 pieces of literature about Allis-Chalmers machinery. The oldest is on the 1936 WC Allis tractor. But he collects all kinds of literature.

"Whenever I go into an implement dealership for parts, I always check out their literature rack to see if there's something new that I don't have," he says. "Eventually it will be a piece of history. I just like to have a record to see how things have changed."

Right On the Money

Accuracy is important to people who restore tractors, implements, or farm toys. Quint says he finds farm literature useful for restorations of farm machinery.

"It's great reference for doing restorations," he says. "I go back and check out the details on the real machine, and I can use the literature to check for accuracy if I don't have the real machine here."

Some collectors use farm literature to build toys, like Dennis Garbers of Fairmont, Minn.

"My toy farm implements were all built from scratch by me," he says, "copied from farm literature."

Afterwards, he sets the literature with the finished product when he displays his works, at home or at a toy show.

Mark Wikner of Cedar Falls, Iowa, uses farm literature to make accurate decals for farm toys.

"I have tons of literature on tractors," he says, "which I love."

He is a voracious reader of farm literature, and he gets some of the information that he needs for his decals from that literature.

"Making decals involves a lot of precision, so I need exact information," he says. "I want to make the decal as real as I can."

The Next Year They Added Wheel Lugs...

Richard Birklid of rural Nome, N.D., collects literature for the information he finds on the pieces. When he writes pieces for the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion annual book, sold at the yearly Rollag, Minn., get-together, he searches for old photos and old literature to help him.

"If I pick a tractor like a Flour City, let's say, and I do an article on it, if I get the literature I not only have the accurate information, but I have it right at hand so I don't have to go to somebody else's book," he says. "I'm buying more and more literature because I use it for research."

Clarence Goodburn started collecting literature to find information about his big tractors.

"I had 13 tractors, and I went to swap meets looking for manuals and literature on those tractors," he says. His collection included the entire F-series of McCormick-Deering tractors, as well as rare ones like the O-12, a small Orchard tractor, a W-12, and an I-12.

"I always had an interest in that stuff, but I didn't know I was going to end up involved in it full-time."

Although that might have been predicted.

"I was like a lot of other farm kids," he says. "I sent in cards to get literature sent to me, and got some from implement dealers, who really liked to give it out in those days. Some of those pieces I looked at so much that I wore them out."

Now he operates Clarence L. Goodburn Literature Sales out of his home, producing two lists a month of farm-related literature (and construction literature) for collectors. His constant search for literature also helps him find pieces to add to his own collection.

"Sometimes I'll run onto something unusual, like some literature made by one of those short-line companies that only made one or two farm machines, and went out of business," he says. "It's usually a low-dollar item, but I'll definitely keep that stuff."

Green (Or Red, or Yellow) All Over

For some people, collecting farm literature is merely another way of staying in contact with the farm machinery line of their choice. Like Ken Updike, of Evansville, Wis., who clearly remembers how his love affair with everything red got started.

"We grew up on the edge of Milton, Wis., and the people who rented our farm land had all IH equipment," he says. "The woman who lived next to us also rented out her land to someone who used just IH equipment. And my mom's parents used IH equipment."

In the 1970s, he and his buddy saw ads for International Harvester tractors and tractor-combines in farm magazines, and began cutting them out, and putting them in scrapbooks. One day Ken was asked to ride along with his uncle, who had bought a brand-new International milk truck.

"He stopped at the dealership where he had bought the truck, and I don't know if he did it for us or not, but when he stopped there, the first thing we did was head for the literature rack, like always, and we raided it like all kids do, big and saucer-eyed seeing all that neat literature," he recalls. "I picked up a handful like always, and one of the pieces was an IH truck with an eagle on the side of it, the IH 4300 Eagle brougham. That's the piece that really turned me onto trucks. I wanted to have a track like that. It looked neat and very big and very impressive. I'm still looking for the real one yet today. If I ever find it I'd pay someone a cash reward for it. I was 12 years old, and I'll never forget that day. And I still have all those ads and scrapbooks today."

Another collector who likes to keep up with his chosen lines of machinery is Wayne Sucker of Grand Rapids, Minn.

"I collect lots of farm literature, belt buckles, then the full-size tractors, and the toy tractors, as well as construction machinery toys," he says.

He says he has drawers and drawers of farm literature, much of it Case and IH.

"It's part of being interested in every aspect of the lines," he says.

The Good Old Days

Some people just like to remember the nostalgic days of the past, like Neal Stone of rural Wisconsin Dells, Wis. He started collecting farm literature, primarily for red tractors, when he was 10 years old.

"I've got quite a fair amount," he says. "I pick it up locally from friends and neighbors, and at local swap meets and shows. The later stuff I get through dealers. I go back and read it, and reminisce, would be a good description of what I do with it. It's also handy for looking back through for different references and specifications, like tire types and that kind of stuff."

Full Circle

Daryl Miller of Battle Creek, Iowa, collects farm literature so he can follow the evolution of farm machinery.

"I find it real interesting, through the literature, to follow how farm machinery evolved over the years, and to follow how companies have evolved over the years, and the mistakes they have made," he says. "I've always been interested in history, and in studying it, so one of the things I find novel is how things make a full circle. A lot of ideas farm companies had 50 years ago are coming back again. Like years ago, all tractors had a wide front end, and then they went to the narrow, and now they're back to the wide front end tractor. Hay was made loose years ago - I remember that because I bucked hay years ago – then everyone went to baling hay, and then about a dozen years ago it went back to making hay in big stacks again, just in a different way. Farming has come full circle, and you can see it in the literature."

He finds collecting literature more interesting than buying toys or big machinery, because with the literature you can sit down and get information out of it.

"And the historical aspect of it," he adds. "I've been real fortunate to be able to buy about ten large collections of literature over the years. Literature is just very attractive to me. When I find a new piece, whether it's interesting or not, if I don't have it, it goes in my collection."

He says he has five drawers of lateral files filled with farm literature, and ten bookcases.

"I had an uncle who was an implement dealer in the town I live in, so there are just some things that come naturally to you," he says. "I've always liked literature, ever since I was a kid. When I got out of high school, I got away from it for a couple of years, but now I'm back."

So What's It Worth?

That's difficult to pinpoint, people agree. One long-time Iowa collector of all kinds of farm machinery, who declined to be named, says farm sales literature is getting pretty expensive.

"I've been hunting around all over for sales literature on an F-30, which is one of the hardest to find in the older Farmalls, but there just isn't that much available. I finally found a poster, but it wasn't cheap."

"I'd say you have to get to know the market," Goodman says. "You could lay ten pieces on the table, and all of them would look alike if you're not dealing in them, but there could be quite a difference in the value."

That said, he adds that "The number of pages in a piece of literature doesn't really tell you, or the age – in fact, with older stuff you can actually reach a point where an item gets too old. I personally have as good luck selling the New Generation John Deere literature as I do the two-cylinder stuff."

Daryl Miller generally determines the value of a piece at 50 cents per year; if a piece of literature is 20 years old, then it's worth $10.

"But it's different with John Deere, because that literature is worth more," he says. "And Ford is not as popular, so you have to go the other way. Then Allis-Chalmers and Case are probably mediocre types of literature. John Deere is the most popular literature that I see."

Whatever the reason people collect farm machinery – and there are dozens of reasons – Clarence Goodburn probably echoes every true farm literature collector when he says, "It's exciting work. It's a treasure hunt for me every day."

Search for Literature Keeps Collectors Scrambling

Farm literature – though tougher to find today than it used to be – is still available. It can be found for sale or trade at pioneer day shows, thresherees, swap meets and tractor shows (see the Farm Collector Show Directory for lists of shows in your area).

Farm-related museums also may have literature, like the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison. Cindy Knight, former F. Gerald Ham archivist for the McCormick-lnternational Harvester collection, says, "One interesting sidelight of this collection of red information at the museum is the information in the advertising literature about the toys that IH commissioned for premiums and to sell to their customers. We have some documentation and literature about the toys Harvester itself produced or distributed, and a collection of farm toys we have came to us when the papers were brought."

Additionally, the collection contains advertising literature for the equipment, catalogs, photographs, posters, booklets, brochures, leaflets and annual catalogs, Knight says.

Those items are available to anybody to study, or photograph, or make a replica of, Knight says. "That takes a bit of arranging, but it certainly can be done, and that's one of the purposes of a museum collection. It is available for study, even as it is available for exhibit."

Literature is also available for purchase from independent dealers like Clarence Goodburn of Madelia, Minn. FC 

Bill Vossler is a regular contributing writer to Farm Collector. 


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