Iron Man of The Month

Little Toys

Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390.

Joe Fahnestock

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'Fred's got a heart as big as he is.' And that's saying a lot about the generosity of one Fred Leathermon. For Fred's not a small, pudgy little sort of fellow. He's just a big man, with an appetite for good things to match it. Should you happen by his stand when he's got his face buried in a half a watermelon, hell slice off a hunk for you. If he happens to be quaffing a quart of cow's milk, of which he laps up several each day, you must share a quart with him, allowing him time, of course, to set down the quart he is drinking so he can fetch another quart from the rear of his big trailer.

That's just the way it is with Fred Leathermon the big friendly guy with the big heart and appetite. But big as Fred is all over, next to his lovely wife he loves most the really little things of life the little cast-iron antique toys, the tiny model steam engines, toy electric trains, tin banks and what have you.

For years the big man with the big trailer loaded with the little toys has been one of the outstanding fixtures at many a midwestern reunion The National Threshers, Rushville, Elwood, Fort Wayne, The Darke County Steam Threshers, Tri-State, wherever he happened to park his truck, open up the sides and drive down the stakes. For the hundreds who stood by and gawked at the old-time regalia lined up on Fred Leathermon's shelves, it was like rolling back the years to a boyhood visit to the village toy store, come Christmastime. Red, cast-iron fire engines, farm wagons with horses, steam threshing engines and separators, toy autos, toy locomotives, iron banks, tin farm pumps that really pumped water a host of things that delighted both big men and little boys world without end.

BIG FRED LIKES LITTLE TOYS - Iron-Man, Fred Leathermon and his lovely wife, Mabel, pose before the Leathermon trailer full of antique cast-iron and tin wind-up toys which he has collected over the years. He looks like a toy-huckster with his wagon but most of the items he won't sell.

Whenever Fred Leathermon and his entourage arrived and set up on a midwest threshermen's reunion ground, it was as spectacular as when the old-time huckster came driving up the dusty country road and stopped in front of the next farm house to display the wonders from the outside world. But instead of such delicacies such as tins of Silver Sea Coffee, Holland-Dutch Chocolate, Koenig-Brand Spices, Edgewater Crackers, County-Line Cheese, petrified apples, sardines, salt mackerel and the like, the Leathermon van hawked things with spring-wound gears and wheels, little steam cylinders that drove flying pistons on tiny thresh engines and road rollers, toy electric trains, and horses pulling red wagons to fight fires. But, unlike the country huckster of long ago, Fred Leathermon didn't care whether you bought or not. Like a boy who never grew up (and that's most of us), he priced the certain scarce and hard-to-come-by articles, his toys, high enough that more than not he kept them that way preferring that way so more could see them, rather than just the well-do-do should own them.

IRON-MAN FRED LEATHERMON HAS HAD HIS BIG TRAILER OF TOYS GROUNDED LATELY FOR FAULTY BRAKES. But he brings the 'Leathermon Special' a fine third-size live steam traction engine he made in his shop back in Madison, Indiana. Fred's grandsons ( Dink's boys) dangle their feet from the little water wagon. Big Fred is engineer. There's just enough horsepower to locomote Fred over the reunion grounds. We wonder who runs the engine when Fred isn't on deck. Can you guess?

'I've got a whole second-floor over my workshop down in Madison, Indiana, filled with old toy electric trains,' confided Fred one day. 'And I'm still hunting more.' And should the on-looker, who happened to be gawking at Fred's toys, have a little toy tractor, or model steam engine that he'd fetched to the reunion it wasn't long till Fred Leathermon would be asking, 'How much ya take for that one? I'd like to put it up on my shelf and add it to my display.'

Like the time I took a little live-steam stationary engine over to Fred's display at The Darke County Threshers just to see what his comment would be. And right away he wanted to buy it, saying, 'How much do you want for it?' To which my reply was, 'Oh, I don't want to sell it. I'd rather keep it.'

Then, in retaliation, I asked Fred what he'd take for a little tin farm pump which actually pumped water up from a trough a toy the likes of which I had seen on the dime store shelf in the hometown some years ago and which I had always intrigued me so. 

'Aw I don't know. Never gave it a thought. I really had to pay a price to get that little pump. Only one I've seen like it. Just can't make up my mind what I would have to get for it,' replied Fred, building up to the grand let-down. 'I really just don't want to sell it.' 

And there the matter always dropped. I still had my stationary steam engine model, and Fred's little toy tin farm pump never moved from its designated place amongst the other toy farm machinery that graced the shelves of the Leathermon exhibit. 

It was always a pleasure to arrive early at The Darke County Steam Threshers' grounds at the Estey woods, east of Greenville, Ohio, and see what new toys Fred Leathermon had brought along for his exhibit. He was always the first to arrive and stake out his territory 'neath the shagbark hickory or spreading elm. There he sat, the friendliest fellow in all the world, quaffing milk and munching cookies or some other dainties, resting up in readiness for the big show the next day. And no better neighbor there was than 'Big Fred,' to pound my stakes and set up my table for taking Iron Men 'prescriptions' (as some folks call 'em), 'longside the Leathermon van. Then it was that, using the excuse that the Joe Dear needed some 'morning exercise,' I'd putt-putt over to Fred's, making a big wide circle and parking directly in front so I could view the latest in antique farm playthings he'd fetched.

IRON-MAN, FRED LEATHERMON, presides over table-top panorama of American threshing scene, at rear of his big trailer, Darke County, Ohio, Steam Threshers several years ago. The two 'engineers' flanking Fred are his grandsons (Dink's boys) - Byron to the right. Power is from two live-steam models Fred worked over in his Madison, Indiana, workshop.

KEYSTONE COPS NO MATCH FOR IRON-MAN. When the Keystone Cops tangled with big Fred Leathermon, at Tri-State '68 Gas Engine and Tractor Reunion, Portland, Indiana, they thought they had a 'tiger in their tank' -the big fellow's avoirdupois was just too much to subdue and stuff into their little paddy wagon.

Each year the exhibit kept growing, the shelves becoming more and more crowded my eye especially noting cast - iron antique manure spreaders, horse-drawn grain wagons, grain separators and water wagons along with a variety of little iron road-rollers, New Huber and Case Thresh engines.

Then there was the time that Fred advanced to live steam models a live steam road-roller which had been made in England and another one he had converted over to working thresh engines by replacing the front roller with traction engine wheels, operated by a little steering-wheel 'neath the metal cab.

And most thrilling of all was the morning I puttered over and saw Fred Leathermon and his two grandsons operating the little traction engine in one of the most lifelike scenes of American steam threshing that I had ever witnessed transpiring on the top of a table. There was the diminutive Nichols and Shepard belted to a little separator, the steam piston flying back and forth at one end of the flopping belt the straw stack at the far end, the lilliputian sacks of grain piled high, a little grain wagon, pulled by prancing draft-horses, coming into position beside the pulsating machinery.

As the day wore on, others would come by to look over the Leathermon agricultural panorama, often bringing along some antique toy, such as a wind-up truck or train, to show to Fred to see his reaction, more often to tempt him into buying, then refusing to sell. And always hanging around Fred Leathermon, like a tick-bird around a rhino, was Don Stocker, reputedly from Bradford, Ohio. For wherever Fred is at a threshing reunion, then and there Don can be seen if at no other time or place.

Let me say here that Fred Leathermon, like most Iron-Men, isn't very talkative about the vital statistics of life which a writer needs to complete his story. And this writer once pleaded with the elusive Stocker to furnish said facts about his friend, Fred, to help with said story. Whereupon Don replied, 'Come on over sometime. I live at Bradford, Ohio, and am easy to find.' But at the last minute, when I so desperately needed those facts, to meet Uncle Elmer's editorial deadline, my trip to Bradford revealed that no one there had ever heard of the mysterious, non-existent Don Stocker. And I began to wonder if he was some kind of spectre, coming into physical being only in the presence of 'Big Fred.'

The last 'goodbye' we said to Fred Leathermon's big trailer was the day after the Tri-State '68 Reunion ended at Portland, Indiana. After that the trailer stayed home, but Fred came anyway. Left, Doc Schwandermon holds one of his 500 rare watches. The two women are Mrs. F. and Mrs. L. The two boys are Dink's sons (Fred's grandsons). Fred to the right. Big Fred Leathermon was always the most genial of hosts always sharing whatever he had. At the Darke County Reunion, Greenville, Ohio, I always parked my Joe Dear tractor beside Fred's trailer where he watched it overnight like as good as any watchdog. 'Nobody 'll fool around the Joe Dear while I'm here to look after it, 'he'd always say. (Don't you love the tin-type posing in this one?)

At any rate I am being forced to write about Fred Leathermon by drawing on my memory of the good times we've had around him and sucking the thumb a bit for the rest trying to do a good job, without Don.

And, speaking of those good times, we can't forget the races we had, pitting our little blue trailer against Fred's bigger trailer to see who could make the run from the Fort Wayne Jim Whitby Reunion to the Tri-State Gas & Tractor grounds at Portland, Indiana, and 'stake out their territory the firstest.' One year we would win, the next year Fred would get ahead. But every year, whatever, wherever the show and whoever the winner, the real fun with the Fred Leathermon's was during the shows until time of departure the day after. Then it was like the final gathering at a family reunion, around the back steps of Fred's big trailer, saying last 'Goodbyes' till next year's shows.

It was at Tri-State '68 that Fred Leathermon came in his big van the last time. He was so happy over the new innovation of his self-contained 'join' which he had installed the year before. 'I've yet to use it the first time saving it someday only for an emergency.' To which I replied, 'Fred any 2 a.m. call is to me an emergency.' But Fred preferred the long walk, as if they weren't emergencies.

The following years Fred Leathermon arrived at the shows without his big trailer-van, boasting the brand new self-containment that had never been called into use.

'My brakes failed on the old truck-trailer, and so I just come in the car,' pined he. There the genial big Fred Leathermon can be seen, sitting on a bench beneath the fairground shade trees, fondling some tiny steam engine he fetched along. Or riding throttle on the third-size 'Leathermon Special' steam traction engine he made in his Madison, Ind., shop, with Dink's sons (his grandsons) dangling their much longer legs astride the tiny waterwagon.

Deprived of the use of his big trailer and forced to leave his antique 'toy shop' back home, Iron-Man Fred Leathermon now takes in the sights of the threshermen's reunions atop the vibrating deck of his little steam-belching monster. And there's just enough horsepower, throttle wide open, to furnish Leathermon locomotion.

Though we pine for those frequent and generous hand-outs of free milk, cookies and watermelon, once enjoyed on the doorsteps of the Leathermon trailer, we gladly forego these niceties in favor of perpetuating the steam dynasty with the Fred Leathermon tradition.

To 'Big Fred' Leathermon, with a heart as big as he is, we doff our Iron-Man katy, dubbing him the 'best of guys' among the many who ever attended a midwest steam engine, tractor reunion. For his tireless efforts at collecting his antique toy agricultural machinery, depicting the American farm scene in panorama, we reserve a chair of honor in our Iron-Man Hall of Fame.

The big man who plays with little boys' toys has rolled back the years for us all. Who said calendars weren't bigliars?

Fred, wind up your toys here come 'us boys.'