How Farm Toys Transformed into Collectible Treasures

Modern day makeover: Part 1 of 2

Arcade Caterpillar

Link chains make this Arcade Caterpillar look realistic.

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Few would have predicted the meteoric rise of the farm toy.

A latecomer to the market, the early farm toy was a simple, generic plaything produced in numbers so small that it barely occupied a niche of the toy category. But the evolution of the farm tractor changed everything. Manufacturers discovered demand for well-made, realistic, branded farm toys was every bit as strong as the market for full-size tractors – setting the stage for the transformation from toy to treasure.

The first known farm toys were a small cart and plow created for the children of England’s King Edward I late in the 13th century. For the next 500 years, farms toys continued to be handmade, of corn husks, scrap wood, empty thread spools, old spoons, spare metal, wood knots and thread (for horse reins) – in short, whatever was available.

Commercial farm toys did not appear until the 1880s, when the Wilkins Toy Co., Keene, N.H., offered a cast iron horse-drawn hay tedder. The tedder was soon followed by three other pieces: the Wilkins plow, mower and dump rake (listed here in the order of most to least difficult to find today).

Ray Lacktorin, Stillwater, Minn., collected all four Wilkins pieces. “After my first farm toy show in 1970 in St. Charles, Ill., I heard guys talking about farm toys I had never heard of,” he recalls. “Somebody had copies of an original Wilkins catalog, and when I saw the toys, I said, ‘Those I’m going to try to own.’ It took me a long time to do it, but I have all four pieces.”

Market slow to develop

Curiously enough, after the Wilkins release, outside of the occasional farm set of barns and animals, no farm toys were manufactured for the next 20 years, despite the proliferation of toys in every other category: stationary steam engines, dolls, train sets, fire engines, balls, banks, boats and ships. It seems odd, especially considering the high percentage of people working the land in that era.

Even the invention of the tractor sometime in the 1890s didn’t spur manufacture or corresponding toys. Tons of carriages, musical horns, performing clowns, frogs, ducks and the like continued to populate catalogs. But there were no true farm toys.

As the years passed, seemingly every other aspect of American vehicle life and culture was touched by commercial toy manufacture. Companies sold child-size automobiles, fire trucks, delivery trucks, ice wagons, trains, velocipedes and more. But no farm toys.

Homespun wonders

The children of farmers, though, were making do. Money was hard to come by in the 1920s and the Depression years of the ’30s, and many children learned to improvise.

Richard Birklid, Nome, N.D., said he made his own toy swathers, binders and plows when he was growing up. “I made them out of wood and whatever I could find around the place,” he recalls. “Old used tablespoons – I had six or eight of them as plow bottoms.” The swather was pretty complicated, he remembers, with a wheel to drive it, a belt turning the canvas around, nails in the wheel as cleats to make it turn, and two blades underneath that piled up dirt and made it look like a swath after the toy swather had passed. “Kids just didn’t have money to buy toys in those days,” Richard says, “so we made our own.”

Lloyd Jark, Stratford, S.D., says he made toys out of blocks of wood, with wheels made of thread spools. “To make a tractor cab, we drove a nail through two blocks of wood,” he recalls. “A Mason jar lid worked for a wheel, and shingle nails driven through a board made a drag. To pull it, we attached pieces of string to the tractor. We thought it was great!”

The closest any company came to manufacturing farm toys was Sears, Roebuck & Co., which offered a pair of steam traction rollers in 1914. Perhaps these toys flopped in the marketplace, or perhaps World War I took a toll in available metal resources. Whatever the reason, the farm toy category was slow to take off.

Lead by a child

But at least some children wanted farm toys in truer representations than those possible from spools, nails and spoons. In 1917, 15-year-old Ted Helbling, Gridley, Ill., decided he wanted a toy model of the Avery 40-80 used on his family’s farm. Farm Implements magazine reported in a 1917 issue that Ted was onto something. “One of the latest results of his progressiveness … has been to design and manufacture an exact replica of the big 40-80 H.P. Avery machine and it contains many of the selling points incorporated in a regular ‘sure enough’ Avery tractor … the sliding frame, the simple power plant, the vertical tube radiator, the cab and the big drive wheels.” Three dry cells pulled behind powered traction work and belt work.

Word got around. Representatives of the Avery Co., Peoria, Ill., stopped to see Ted and took pictures of his model. Perhaps it is coincidence that in 1920 the first real farm toy tractor produced (by Hubley Mfg. Co., Lancaster, Pa.) was a 4-1/2-inch-long Avery tractor of a design identical to Ted’s, though it was an 18-36 model. 

Jake Gruenewald’s all-time favorite farm toy is one of those cast iron Hubley 18-36 models. It’s a sentimental pick for the Juda, Wis., collector. “Dad got it from the family doctor when he was a kid, about 90 years ago,” Jake says. “Maybe he was sick. That’s the only toy I have that I feel I would never sell, but will pass it on to my kids.”

Also in 1920 (though some references say 1926), Arcade Mfg. Co., Freeport, Ill., made a 2-bottom pull-type cast iron plow. Today, it’s a hard-to-find piece.

Fordson frenzy

The Kilgore Co., Westerville, Ohio, made a pair of cast iron Fordson Model F farm toys in 1920 in 1/20 and 1/25 scale. The company also made an International Harvester 10-20 in 1/20 scale in about 1930.

1923 seems to be a magical year for the proliferation of farm toys. According to Dick’s Farm Toy Price Guide, Arcade produced three 1/16-scale cast iron Fordson Model F’s that year. By 1929, Arcade had manufactured 24 varieties of Fordson F tractors, in various sizes (1/16, 1/24, 1/32) and colors, many red or green.

Also in 1923 Sears offered “A Beautiful Mechanical Tractor, Like Your Daddy’s,” weighing 2 pounds and selling for 89 cents (equivalent to about $11 today). Other companies hopped into the fray, making more Fordson F’s. Dent Hardware Co., Fullerton, Pa., made a 5-3/4-inch-long Fordson F tractor in about 1930, and in 1940, a 1/32-scale Fordson F and a 1/16-scale Allis-Chalmers WC row-crop, with the name cast in the toy.

Hubley, whose motto was “They’re Different,” also made Fordson F’s in about 1930, including two in 1/16 scale with front end loaders. One driver wore a hat, the other, a cap. Hubley’s 1/24- and 1/32-scale Fordson F models made during the same year are quite common.

Also in 1930, A.C. Williams made three Fordson F farm toys in cast iron. The toys were offered in three sizes: 1/16, 1/24 and 1/32 scale. The Kenton (Ohio) Hardware Mfg. Co. made three Fordson F’s in 1930, one in 1/16 scale and two in 1/20 scale. One had a wooden roller on front. Barclay Mfg. Co., Union City, N.J., made a Fordson F tractor with white rubber tires and red wooden wheels. It was only 2-1/8 inches long.

Vindex muscles up

Small companies like those didn’t last in the farm toy business very long, although Hubley and Structo made farm toys for many years. By the 1930s, two companies held the lion’s share of the business: National Sewing Machine Co., Belvidere, Ill., and Arcade.

National made Vindex toys during the Great Depression, creating jobs for skilled workers the company hoped to retain until business turned around and production of the company’s main line – sewing machines – resumed. Most Vindex toys were John Deere or Case models, all made of cast iron in approximate 1/16 scale, and all manufactured about 1930. Oddly enough, only three – the Bates Steel Mule crawler, Case Model L and John Deere D – were tractors.

Other than a P&H steam shovel and cardboard farm scene, other Vindex toys were implements, a line other toy manufacturers largely ignored. These include John Deere toys (gasoline engine, plow, drill, spreader, thresher, wagon, hay loader and the like) as well as Case toys (plow, spreader, hay loader and combine).

Ray Lacktorin says the hay loaders have a unique twist. “An interesting sidelight about the Vindex hay loaders is that the Case hay loader and the John Deere hay loader are exactly the same, as they pretty much are in real life,” he says. “But what Vindex did was make all Case hay loaders, and then grind off the Case name and put a decal or stencil on to cover it up.”

Another insider’s tip: Vindex John Deere D tractors break easily right where the front wheels are pinned. “I think when Vindex pinned all those toys together, they put a little abnormal stress on the pinning,” he says, “and it doesn’t take a lot of force to break them. Just hit them right.”

Gary Haisley, Fairmount, Ind., has a huge collection of John Deere tractors, but lacks many Vindex pieces. “The problem isn’t only that they cost big bucks,” he says. “They’re also very hard to find.”

Innovation at Arcade

Arcade produced a wide variety of Allis-Chalmers, Caterpillar, Ford, Fordson, International Harvester and Oliver farm toys, with a few John Deere and a Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engine thrown in.

Like their competitors at Vindex, Arcade leaders realized their tractors needed implements. So in addition to their IH A, M, Regular and 10-20, as well as crawler-type TD-18 and TD-40, Oliver 70, Allis-Chalmers WC and U, Avery 45-65, Caterpillar Ten, Fordson F and Ford 9N tractors, Arcade made a wide variety of cast iron implements. These included the usual plows, discs, harrows and mowers, but also corn planters and binders, bottom dump scraper, dirt scraper with handles, as well as an Oliver set, almost all before 1940.

Jim Goke, St. Cloud, Minn., has a wide variety of Arcade farm toys collected and passed down by his father. “He got those three varieties of the Arcade Fordson tractors with different wheels, smaller Fordsons made in the 1920s, and a couple of Arcade Avery tractors,” Jim says. His dad traded an Arcade Model T auto for the later gray model Avery. Jim’s collection includes an Arcade Oliver orchard tractor. “It’s in good shape because when I was a kid,” he says, “I thought it was too ugly to play with.”

As a kid, Bill McConnell, Amenia, N.D., had an Arcade McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor with a dirt scraper hooked to it. “It was a toy set I treasured because it was given to me by a friend of my grandfather’s, a prominent man who was assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. But I don’t think they’re very common,” he says. “Of all the toy shows I’ve been to, I’ve never seen but one other. There was also a plow with it, a 2-bottom Arcade plow, and they were sold to go with those tractors.”

Farm toys, or not?

Some farm toys struggle for collector respect. Marx toys, for instance, are often considered “fringe” farm toys, perhaps because of their unrealistic but colorful lithography. Donovan Bluhm, Cosmos, Minn., had Marx toys as a kid. “I kept them in perfect shape,” he recalls. “If I had company, I wouldn’t play with them because they would get all banged up.”

Duane Farr, Golden Valley, Minn., thinks Marx toys are neat. “They’re not built very well, out of light-gauge steel or even tin,” he admits, “but if you find them in good shape, they’re really unique toys. Somebody did a little thinking on how to design them and have them work.” They often have moving parts as well.

Salesman’s samples are fringe farm toys, too. Traveling salesmen used the compact, lightweight pieces to demonstrate how the real machine worked. Like patent models, they actually worked, and were easy to carry from farm to farm. Salesman’s samples were made for windmills, separators, cream separators and more.

In reverse, the Reuhl-made Cedar Rapids rock crusher was so detailed the parent company bought some to use as salesman’s samples.

Winds of change

The years of World War II signaled a period of significant change in American agriculture and rural life. The transition from horse farming to mechanized farming, paired with increasing urbanization, had immense and long lasting impact on traditional farm life. On a smaller scale, changes resulting from war-related shortages had an equally dramatic impact on farm toy manufacture. New materials spurred creative new manufacturing applications, and an unemployed foundry worker named Fred Ertl Sr. led the way.

In the second part of this two-part series, coming in the July issue of Farm Collector, read about powerful new influences that transformed toys into treasures: “New Materials, Technology Revive Farm Toy Hobby.”  FC