At the Two-Cylinder tractor show held in Amana, Iowa, this summer, a large crowd gathered inside the information building. Part of the crowd had flocked to see Charles Freitag paint his beautiful farm scenes. The other part, though, was gathered around a display of wooden tractors so intricately made that the word "toy" is inadequate.
The handmade wooden tractors were the work of Ralph Smith. Ralph, his wife, Nancy, two of their four children, and a friend made the trip from Texas. Showing off his tractors and trading information with customers, Ralph made it clear that he enjoys his work.
It wasn't always work, though: Ralph started as a hobbyist.
"I bought him his first tractor as a stocking stuffer," said Nancy. "He was all excited and started collecting the little bitty metal ones."
The collection took off, though, when he bought a Case 1190, and received the toy to go with it. Although Nancy told him he could have just one, that number is not part of his vocabulary when it comes to collectibles.
He now has about 800 toy tractors displayed through almost every room of their Mathis, Texas, home (there are no tractors in the bathroom). The toys are displayed on glass shelves. The collection has grown so large that some pieces have even invaded Nancy's Barbie collection case.
Wooden toys began as a gift idea.
Ralph started out making wooden toys as Christmas gifts for his nephews. One day, he decided to see if he could make a tractor. Once he got the basics down, he added one detail after another. Eight years later, his tractors are so intricately crafted that they look real enough to drive right off the display. The skill was not learned overnight.
"It took about five years to get to this point," he said.
A carpenter by trade, Ralph uses a variety of wood in his pieces. One of the most unusual pieces is a 1939 Farmall F20 carved out of Jataboa, a Brazilian wood that resembles rosewood. He's also made three other '39 Farmall F20's from Texas Mesquite. His 1926 Spoker D's are crafted from a dark, rich mahogany and white oak, and red oak is used for his toy John Deere B.
His scope is not limited to vintage classics. He has a 1956 John Deere 620 and a 1965 John Deere 4020, both made of white oak. The seat and plate of the 4020 are made of the root Agarita, which is common to the Texas hill country.
Any model made for a certain year will follow the same characteristics of the real tractor, Ralph said. Each detail is meticulously copied. Given the amount of labor involved, Ralph's artwork is reasonably priced. Most of his tractors are priced between $250 and $300.
Many are sold before they're completed (Ralph's never advertised, so it's all "word of mouth"). Most of those on display at the Amana show were his own, or were sold. He makes one prototype, then tries to make 10 at a time. Once --just once -- he said he made the mistake of selling a prototype.
"There is nothing like the very first one," he said. "Each one is always a little different."
Ralph said he knows of no other handcarved toy tractor artists producing in the volume he does (more than 100 toys a year). His big break came when he was featured as a local artist in the "Eyes of Texas" series. His work has been featured in several national magazines, and his 1939 F20 has been placed on display at the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa.
The hobby became a fulltime business when he retired about two years ago at 39. Nancy encouraged Ralph to devote his energies to his new interest.
"Ralph is a carpenter and also an artist," she said. "He just put the two things together."
Under the couple's new agreement, he takes care of the cooking, shopping and kids' appointments.
"I have most of it down," he said, "but I'm just now getting the hang of laundry!"
After a lifetime of working as a carpenter, going into business for himself was a big step. He'd had, he said, three "great employers," and made the leap into self-employment only because they retired. That background has served him well: not only did he do carpentry work, he also did recreations of vintage finishing details, like sculpting fireplaces and cornices. Former employers still persuade him to take on an occasional special project. FC
For more information: Ralph Smith, RR 2, Box 59J, Mathis, Texas, 78368; phone (512) 547-3402. On the internet, wdtracbyrs@aold. com
Cindy Ladage is a freelance writer based in Virden, III.