For Tim Carlson of Stanchfield, Minn., the first time was the charm.
“I spent two and a half years making my 1/16-scale 1970s dairy farm display,” he says, “and just after I finished it, I showed it at the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa.”
The result? First place amidst some high-class competition. “I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say,” he recalls. “I couldn’t talk, and I almost started crying. I knew of people who had been trying for years and hadn’t won. I thought I might be in the running but there was a lot of competition, and I never thought I would win.”
Hooked as a kid
As a kid, Tim helped on his uncles’ dairy farms, and fell in love with “dairy farm stuff,” as he calls it. “I had a bunch of toy tractors when I was a little kid, and played with a Tru-Scale manure spreader and red tractor,” he recalls, “and Ertl’s 544 International Harvester tractor, all in 1/16-scale.”
In those days, Tim says, the Milaca, Minn., area where he grew up boasted four hardware stores, all with farm toys for sale. “They had quite a few of them, pretty much all 1/16-scale,” he says. “I remember the Slik drag, and planter and plow.”
He customized a few toys too, but wasn’t sure what he was doing. “I’d put duals on something that didn’t work,” he says, “or take wheels off another toy and never be able to get them back on.”
Eventually Tim started making farm layouts. Building farm sets out of cardboard boxes, with silos and fences made of string, served as instruction for his future displays. He was also learning about dairy farms. “I just loved it. I’d go visit especially during hay season, which etched it in my mind,” he says. “That’s why I ended up doing a dairy farm.”
As the idea of crafting a barn blossomed in Tim’s brain, he did more and more research. He came to realize that every barn was different. “Some had four-pane windows, some had six-pane windows,” he says. “Some were 30 feet wide, some were 32 feet wide, and so on.”
Tim settled on a hip-roof barn with a hayloft on top and eight-pane windows, all scaled down from his uncles’ 36-by-60-foot barn. “I didn’t know how detailed I would have to build it,” he says, “but I decided I was just going to try to do it.”
Seeking authenticity, he decided on a model based on a barn 36 feet wide. “In a barn that size, if they didn’t have a barn cleaner, some farmers had to run a small tractor and manure spreader down the middle. Then you’d use a shovel to clean out the gutters and throw the manure in the spreader,” he says. “I know, because I used to help my cousin do it.”
Growing up with 1/16-scale pieces, Tim opted to stick with what he knew. At the National Farm Toy Show, he was surprised to find most farm displays were 1/64-scale. “I never saw any in my scale, so I knew I was going to have to break the mold and start making the display in the size I wanted,” he explains. “So I went home and started making it.” Space restrictions presented a very real challenge: Show displays must fit within an 8-by-8-foot area.
The barn and addition were crafted of cedar, pine and oak. “The beams, representing 6-by-6-foot beams in a real barn, are pine,” he says, “cut 3/4-inch square on a table saw.” He also used oak for a few beams.
Siding and shingles were made of cedar. The wood came from local lumberyards and rough lumber, all of which he ran through his table saw. To shingle the roof, he turned the barn on its side, glued one row of shingles, lined them up with a straight edge and let them dry. Each day he added another row, lapping shingles until he was done.
For the siding, Tim ripped 1/2-inch cedar boards into thin strips, tipped the barn and added siding one row at a time. “I’d put the first row on straight, glue it in and the next day I’d do the second row,” he says. “I just went a row at a time, and it looks like lathe siding.”
He figured he had two choices for windows: Cut the board off straight, or miter the corners. “After mitering the first ones, I thought, ‘You know, I don’t think they mitered those windows,’” he explains. “I think they ran them up straight.”
He crushed those he’d made, and cut the rest straight across. While installing siding, he worked around the windows. Later, he popped out the windows and used small brushes to apply several coats of red barn paint. “Then I painted the window trim white, put glue on each window and pushed them back onto the barn,” he explains, neatly alleviating the need for precise edging with a tiny brush. The effect is so flawless that people ask for the name of the hobby shop that supplied the windows.
Tim handcrafted the barn’s cupolas and repeated his window technique. He shingled around the cupolas, then removed them for painting. When the paint dried, he glued them in place permanently.
For a realistic look, Tim added lightning rods and balls. “The lightning rods are brass, and the balls were glass beads with a hole through them,” he says. “They fit right and look just like the real globe. That’s the kind of stuff you’re always looking for when you’re in a store.”
The Harvestore silos are homemade, too. Perfect models of the real thing (a 50-footer and a 60-footer), they’re made from 16-gauge steel and bent round. “They’re about 20 feet across in real life,” Tim says, “but just 15 inches in my display.” The tops were patterned first on paper, then cut out and bent to the right size. Ladders and cages were made of brass, using exact measurements taken on the farm.
“I made those cages on a little table with a soldering gun and brass, and after a while I noticed all the flat brass had little waves in it,” Tim recalls. “I looked at the real cages, and found the same waves. So you can’t keep those real straps perfectly straight when they’re put up either.”
The caps on the Harvestore silos proved to be the most difficult part of the entire project. “Frost plugs from automobile engines were the perfect scaled-down size for the (24-inch-circumference) caps,” Tim says. “It was difficult to get the right angles – 45 degrees – with the little lip bent over.” Accustomed to working alone, Tim turned to a friend for help on this task. “After shaping them we had to pound them over to get the lips,” he says.
The grain bin is a customized Standi Toys product. “It came as a plastic shell, so I added a bigger ladder, a cap on top and a door,” he explains. “Then I spray painted it gray.” The finished piece got at least one close look: Tim says he saw Stan Krueger (owner of Standi Toys) closely examine the final result at the National Farm Toy Show.
Real corncribs are about 14 feet around and 14 feet tall, Tim says. He used brass, hardware cloth and a 16-gauge steel roof similar to the Harvestore roofs. “I made a pattern out of a piece of paper shaped like a funnel, and cut the metal out,” he says. “In school I always liked woodworking and metalworking, and this farm display was both of them for me.”
Working in brass is a real plus. “Whatever you want for brass is out there, and there are really good people dealing in it,” he says. “Ladders, round pieces, angle irons, flat. It’s easy to get and easy to solder together, because it doesn’t take much heat.”
Salt blocks were fashioned from sugar cubes. A bull with a ring in his nose watches over 58 cows in the yard. “Back then, in the ’70s, farmers only had one bull,” Tim says. The cow yard is covered with a mix of black dirt and potting soil. “I mixed it up in a 5-gallon pail, spread Elmer’s Glue all over the wood, and dumped the mixture on it,” Tim says. “After it dried it bumped up just like a cow yard would. It even has little pieces of wood in there.”
Cow stanchions in Tim’s 22-1/2-by-27-inch addition are made of small brass pipe painted silver to match the gates. Tim soldered little nuts onto the gate for hinges. Each cow wears a hand-crafted leather collar, complete with tiny buckles and rings from a hobby store. Tiny bales of hay were bought from youngsters who made them at shows and sold them for a dollar apiece. “I knew I could make my own, but I figured I might as well help them out,” Tim says. “Besides, I have other things to do with my time.”
Tim made the diesel tank out of 2-inch exhaust tubing capped at the ends; the handle is fashioned out of brass. The smallest vacuum hose he could find is the gasoline tank hose. Purchased additions include a gasoline can, grease gun, bale hook and tools.
Like all good scratch-builders, Tim uses some odd materials to get the effects he wants. “Cheap chains at a jewelry store would have cost me a bunch of money,” he says. “At a craft shop I found ankle bracelets were the perfect size. That’s where the chains on the whole farm display came from.”
Another challenge for the farm display artist is getting the entire thing from point A to point B. “I made boxes for everything, but a lot of the stuff is real delicate,” he says. “Figuring out how to transport it and set it up is probably the hardest part.” Because 1/16-scale isn’t often used in farm displays, it’s difficult to find some parts. “But I still enjoy this scale,” he says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The next project
Tim’s already gathered the wood and has a floor plan for his next barn. “This will be one with hay on the main level, with cows surrounding the hay, and 8-foot walls going up to the peak, with no haymow,” he says. “Hay was kept in the middle of the barn, on top of the cows, to keep them warm, too. My uncle near Braham, Minn., had a barn like that, and I used to help him put up hay.”
Farm displays are a good way to preserve the past, Tim says. “A lot of people can do this,” he says. “It takes some patience, some experimenting and a good place to work on it.”
Times have changed so much that the scene his display captures is fast becoming a historic relic. “Isanti County (Minn.) now has only six dairy farms,” Tim says. “I hope people build more displays like this, because this kind of farm won’t be around much longer.” FC