Watch Fob Frenzy

Minnesota man treasures construction, farm-related watch fobs.

Gene Manfred is an enthusiastic collector of toys and watch fobs

Gene Manfred is an enthusiastic collector of toys and watch fobs. He's shown here with a Caterpillar toy he's had since he was a boy, backed up by rows of pieces he's collected since.

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When Gene Manfred received his first watch fob in 1965, he really wasn't that interested in it. "It was an Austin-Western fob from Arring Equipment of Eau Claire, Wis.," the Red Wing, Minn., man recalls.

That supplier sold a grader to a township in Ellsworth, Wis., and gave Gene the watch fob. "I had that one fob and used it like a key chain on my ring of keys," Gene says. "I had no idea that there were even other fobs out there, to be honest with you."

That changed in 1993 when a heart procedure forced Gene to sit back and relax for a while. He needed a hobby, and started chasing after construction toys, and then fobs. "I started seeing fobs at shows, and because they had the names of distributors on them, like Ziegler Caterpillar in Minneapolis, Gibbs-Cook Caterpillar in Iowa and Butler-Cat in the Dakotas, they really tripped my trigger," he says with a laugh.

Construction fobs

Gene's first love in fobs are those related to construction equipment, and he has hundreds of them. "Probably the first ones made were the Holt Manufacturing Co. (dating to the 1920s) and I've got a lot of those old ones," he says. "They're pretty good pieces of property." According to The Watch Fob Guide Book by Allan Hoover, the most valuable fobs are the earliest ones produced by Caterpillar.

Fobs often depict specific products, like one in Gene's collection showing an Allis-Chalmers dozer with a loader loading a truck, and a scraper. "It's not a valuable fob, but one I like, and was probably made for a fob show where they featured that," Gene says. "There's nothing on the back of this one to indicate where or why it was made." The piece dates to 1998.

Gene's favorite fobs are the ones that are hardest to find, like some from Caterpillar and Cedar Rapids Rock Crusher. "You very seldom see a fob dealer with one of the Cedar Rapids fobs," he says. Although he has six in his own collection, he says he hasn't seen one at a show for four or five years.

One of his more unusual fobs is a Caterpillar charm bracelet found for him by area auctioneer Keith Dicke. "He found two of them at an auction he was running, and kept one for himself and got one for me," Gene says. It's a rare piece, as far as Gene knows. A fob commemorating Vietnam is another rare piece: A great deal of Caterpillar equipment was used to clear jungles there.

Other harder-to-find fobs include Caterpillar fobs with colored enamel on them. "There's the yellow machine on the white background," he says, "or yellow against a black background for contrast, some with loaders loading trucks, the dual D9G Caterpillar, and some scrapers are colored."

Another of his fobs is an International Harvester truck key fob. He figures it was a premium with the purchase of an IH truck, or road tractor, "because that's what it is. It has a road tractor grille on it. I'm sure there might still be some of those out there. It's not common, but it's not rare, either."

Farm fobs

Gene began collecting agriculture-related fobs when he saw pieces he liked at shows. He once had several John Deere fobs, but has sold them all. "They're pretty darn collectible," he says, "so if I got one I would trade it away for something else or sell it outright."

The oldest piece of farm equipment portrayed on a fob in his collection is a Case steamer. It appears on a piece produced by the Midwest Watch Fob Collectors in 2000. Another one depicting an old tractor is a fob for the Hart-Parr tractor, made by Hart-Parr Tractor Co. of Charles City, Iowa. Hart-Parr merged with three other companies in 1929.

Gene also has several Allis-Chalmers fobs (listed in Hoover's book as Allis-Chalmers Nos. 1, 2 and 3), which were probably given out with the purchase of an Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor. "Those were tractors from the 1950s and 1960s," he says. A former Wisconsin resident, Gene likes Allis-Chalmers pieces because the company was based in West Allis, Wis. Plus, he says, "Allis was a good old company."

One of his more unusual fobs portrays a 1920s-era IHC stationary engine, the type used to pump water on days when no breeze stirred the windmill. "They were often 1 hp engines hooked up to pump-jacks or something else belt-driven," he says. Another favorite in his collection is a fob relating to a McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor and a Farmall Regular tractor.

Help in building a collection

Even Gene's mother-in-law is in on the hobby. Through the years, she has found several fobs for him. Gene also bought several collections, which means he ends up with lots of duplicates. But that's not a problem, because he trades some and sells others.

Four years ago, he bought a large collection from Richard Wagner, Fifield, Wis. "He had a lot of very, very collectible fobs in a case, all with leather straps," Gene says. Though original straps may be lost or in bad condition, replacement straps are available from fob dealers, Gene says. "The straps don't have any designs on them, and are usually a brown or black leather loop that you put through the loop of the fob on one end and the loop of the pocket watch on the other," he says. "They cost about a buck apiece."

To illustrate how watch fobs were used, Gene displays a fully dressed manikin in his toy room, complete with a fob hanging out of the pocket watch pocket in the overalls. "The fob hung over the side of the pocket," he explains. "What people would do is take hold of the fob, pull the watch out of the pocket, look at the time and put it back in."

Searching for special pieces

Collecting watch fobs is not only fun, Gene says, but also a good investment. "I really wouldn't want to say how much I paid for some of them," he says with a chuckle. "Those that cost the most are pretty darn scarce."

That said, many fobs are very common. "You find them everywhere you go, like Caterpillar No. 15 (according to the Hoover book), a D7 track-type tractor," he says. "Some of the scraper fobs are common, like the No. 18 and No. 24, with a dozer pushing a pile of dirt. Then there are the loaders and graders, like Nos. 28, 29 and 31." And many fobs were produced for D-6, D-7 and D-8 Caterpillars, Gene says.

Still, fobs in general are harder to find today, Gene says. "You go to a farm show and you might see one or two or maybe a dozen fobs. Many of them are duplicates of what I have, and they're not very valuable. The most valuable ones are the ones that guys are holding onto."

Like avid collectors everywhere, Gene says the pieces he likes best are those that are hardest to find. "They're highly, highly collectible, so they're fun," he says. "I'm an old rascal now, and I like to see things that existed way before my era."

- For more information: 

Gene Manfred, 986 Spring Creek Road, Red Wing, MN 55066; (651) 388-5496. 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com