Celebrating Childhood at the National Farm Toy Museum

Farm toy museum appeals to both collectors and tourists with memories of good times on the farm.

A Case steam traction engine on display at the museum

A Case steam traction engine on display at the museum.

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It may not be the fountain of youth, but the National Farm Toy Museum at Dyersville, Iowa, does have a way of making people feel like kids all over again. "Our visitors really enjoy taking a step back into the past," says Amanda Schwartz, "seeing the tractors they used as a kid growing up on a farm, or the ones that grandpa had." Amanda is the executive assistant for Dyersville Industrial Development, and events and membership coordinator for the toy museum.

Kids of all ages get excited about the museum, Amanda says. "Today I heard a little kid exclaim, 'Look at all the toys!'" she says. "That's what I like about my job: the reaction you get from people." She also enjoys showing off the museum's vast collection. Her favorite toy in the museum resembles a 1950s Farmall and was manufactured in 1969 by Carter Tru-Scale Products. Called the "Shut Up Toy," it cost less than a dollar in grocery stores where it was sold to keep children quiet while mom shopped. "That's always a fun story to tell kids," Amanda says.

The museum's first floor includes a theater where a 10-minute film ("Toys to Treasures") is shown, and a full-size farmhouse porch and seven dioramas depict farmstead changes over the past century. A variety of toys and a die-cast machine once used at the Ertl Co. are also displayed on the first floor.

On the second floor are exhibits illustrating the evolution of corn and grain harvesting (complete with custom-made machine replicas), and floor-to-ceiling displays of farm toys, pedal tractors, toy construction equipment, fire engines, trucks and banks.

More variety than Heinz has pickles

Two types of audiences visit the toy museum's 14,000-square foot space. "There's the collector who knows the toys, the manufacturer and all the details," Amanda says. "Then there's the tourist who just wants to know what the toy is and why it's special. We try to please both."

Variety is the key to keeping everybody happy. At the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) section, tractors are showcased alphabetically from Allis-Chalmers through White. "Putting the entire inventory in order alphabetically and chronologically was a labor of love," Amanda admits. "It took us a while to get that together, but it's a nice display."

2007's major display is "Decades of Deere," which includes a strong showing of cast iron Vindex toys. Visitors learn not only about John Deere equipment, but also the heritage of Vindex toys, which children once earned as a commission for selling subscriptions to Farm Mechanics magazine.

Most of the Decades display will return to Deere & Co. in late December. The 2008 display, which will focus on Farmall tractor toys, is in production now and will be unveiled in March."'We're going to highlight different tractors and go into some depth with them," Amanda says. "We're hoping to get a showcase collection from someone so it will tell a new story."

The National Farm Toy Museum also features a large collection of farm toys from Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. "We get a lot of visitors from other countries who tell us what we don't have," Amanda says.

Other visitor favorites include the display showing how farm toys are built and a unique exhibit showcasing the range of scale-size tractor toys available. "A lot of people like to get their pictures taken by that display," she says. "Kids love to see the toy tractors all lined up like that."

Some visitors are surprised by the museum's collection of whiskey-bottle tractors made by Scale Model Toys, as well as tractors in 1/8-scale, an uncommon size. There are even displays for people uninterested in farm toys. "We have a collectible doll exhibit," Amanda says, "and statues and original art that are not related to tractors."

Home to several manufacturers of farm toys, Dyersville is considered the farm toy capital of the world. Accordingly, the museum updates its exhibits often enough to interest those who return twice a year for national farm toy shows held there. "We want visitors to say to others, 'If you're going to Dyersville, you really should check out that museum,'" Amanda adds.

A look behind the scenes

Space constraints and other practicalities do not allow the toy museum's entire collection to be displayed at any one time. Items are rotated in and out on a regular basis, preventing displays from becoming stale. "The museum is different every time people come," Amanda notes. "Returning visitors often look for a specific piece or display they've seen in the past and can't find it. That's probably because it's in storage, and something else has taken its place."

Because the museum is considered the leading collection of farm toys in the nation, Amanda is careful to surround herself with experts when creating exhibits. "I get input from the museum advisory committee on what's needed for display," she says. "Then I research, which I love to do." She delves into histories of tractors to find interesting tidbits that might educate or entertain museum visitors. "We present information with the displays that people can read to learn about the display," she says. And she always credits her sources. "That's one thing I learned as an English major!"

Once the display's focus, direction and information have been determined, then comes the physical part. "To move the display cases, I enlist anybody I can get," Amanda says. "It's very labor-intensive." Glass shelves must be carefully maneuvered so nothing is broken or chipped and no one is injured. The toys are delicate and must be treated carefully.

When the new display is complete, Amanda steps back to assess its popularity. "I watch which displays people like, and how much time they take with them," she says.

The advisory committee also plays a role in choosing the next toy tractor the museum will sell. "It's a very hard decision," Amanda says. "The advisory board members have a long and varied experience in the toy collecting and manufacturing industry. They're able to direct us in setting up displays and choosing our featured tractors. When it comes to feature tractors, you're still not sure what will sell and what won't. It's always a mystery what the consumer wants and what the collector wants."

Building a collection

Amanda estimates up to 60 percent of the museum's collection is owned by the museum. Loaned items (the remaining 40 percent) are an important complement. "Most of what we own was donated, or we purchased collections," she says. Because funding for acquisitions is limited, the museum has no real budget for rare and costly pieces … the kind of farm toys collectors hold on to. But when rare, low-production pieces are loaned to the museum, it broadens the collection in a cost-effective manner.

"We look forward to donations, but we don't turn away a loan," Amanda adds, "because it may be something the public may never have the opportunity to see in any other way."

On the other hand, the museum cannot afford to become a closet for collections that collectors can't accommodate in their own homes. "We don't want to end up as a storage facility," she explains, "so we limit how long toys can be in the museum on loan."

The museum maintains a wish list of permanent acquisitions. As funding becomes available, for instance, the organization hopes to purchase some of the loaned dioramas (three-dimensional scenes) now displayed on the second floor. Those include Ev Weber's History of Forage Harvesting and 1940s Weber Homestead. "Displays on the history of agriculture are very popular," Amanda says, "because they illustrate farming and how the big tractors played a role in life from 1920 to the present day."

Looking to the future

The museum is constantly evolving, held in check only by the familiar constraints of space and funding, both of which are limited. "Right now space is an issue," Amanda says. "I would love to have more display room and more showcases. Those are on our wish list and something we might have in the future. But I'm very pleased with the museum right now. We're definitely making improvements, and have a formal plan for continual renewal and excitement with different displays." It's a formula that's clearly working.

"We get letters thanking us for the museum, saying 'It took me back to my childhood.' That's nice to hear," she says. "That means we are doing our job, telling the story of farm toys and how it related to the people who used the actual tractors, or played with those toys."  FC 

For more information: http://www.nationalfarmtoymuseum.com/ 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him by; email: bvossler@juno.com