Not for Kids Only: Toy Farm Displays

Vintage toy collectors show ingenuity with hand-crafted farm displays for their collections.
Bill Vossler
May 2008
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Chris used 1/16 scale for part of his farm display.
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Farm Displays Grow Up

About 15 years ago, people attending farm toy shows began noticing a proliferation of farm displays: model displays of farmsteads and fields, buildings, crops and machinery, exhibited on tables. Truth is, farm displays have been around for decades. Recently, though, they have become common at toy shows.

Ev Weber, Lima, Ohio, remembers making his own displays as a boy. "Each winter during the Great Depression, my father took the car and trailer to a local factory, and for 10 cents he bought a load of scrap wood for the furnace," he says. As a boy, Ev routinely appropriated a few scraps to use in making toy tractors and implements, using a saw and hammer, 7-penny nails for axles and a cigar box with wheels to pull behind the tractor. Thus equipped, he could pretend to farm.

Lloyd Jark of Sioux Falls, S.D., had a similar experience. "During the 1930s we made our toys out of blocks of wood, with wheels made of old thread spools or Mason jar lids with a nail driven through the center," he recalls. Two blocks of wood nailed together made a tractor cab, shingle nails pounded through a board made a drag, and an old spoon became a plow as Lloyd and his brother played in the dirt. "To pull the implements we used little pieces of string attached to the tractor," Lloyd says. "We thought it was great; we had a lot of fun. And we did it all by hand. We used a lot of imagination in those days."

One of the first commercial farm displays appeared at about the same time. At implement dealerships, cast iron Vindex toys manufactured by National Sewing Machine Co., Belvidere, Ill., were staged in front of a traditional farm scene printed on cardboard, creating a diorama. The backdrop featured a red-roofed barn with cupola, house and garage, fields, roads traveled by cars and trucks, and even an airplane aloft in the sky. Those cardboard backdrops are extremely rare and difficult to find today.

Evolution of a hobby

Farm displays came into their own during the late 1980s and early 1990s as farm toy collecting entered the mainstream, and collectors no longer hid behind the 'toys for the grandchildren' excuse. As the hobby matured, cast iron toys were replaced by die-cast pieces, well-known lines (John Deere and International Harvester) were joined by the more obscure (Silver King and Heider), and simple toys were pushed aside by finely detailed replicas. Customizing and scratch-building added another dimension to the hobby, delivering richly detailed, handcrafted models.

The next step seemed logical: recreating the old home place, or an imaginary one … an implement dealership or machine shed … an ag-related truck stop … even a farm town -- anything the builder might desire in a farm display.

Early farm displays often used 1/16-scale toys, because varieties of smaller sizes weren't available. Today, says Chris Burmeister of Mankato, Minn., 1/16-scale displays indicate an 'antique' farm. A quick check supports that theory. The Dale and Martha Hawk Museum near Wolford, N.D., the Loren Stier Museum at Belle Plaine, Minn., and the National Farm Toy Museum at Dyersville, Iowa, all have 1/16-scale farm toys in their displays, and all of those depict farms from the 1920s and 1930s.

Memory: A powerful motivation

Because of his love of 1/16-scale displays, the late Carlyle Greibrok added 13 rooms onto his house in Austin, Minn., to house displays. "I liked to build," he said in an interview before his death in 2003. "So I'd put in a foundation in the fall so I'd have something to do during the winter."

His farm displays showed tractors planting or working soybeans, but threshing scenes were his favorite. "I did a lot of threshing when I was a kid," he said. "It was hard, heavy work, but I was making 50 cents an hour in 1936-37, big money at the time, and you always got good food."

Dave Konz, a rural Marty, Minn., collector, decided to make a model of the machine shed he built on his farm eight years ago. Happy with the outcome of that project, he sketched an implement dealership based on one in Watkins, Minn. "I chose 1/16-scale, so everything would be larger and I could get more detail in it," he says.

The most challenging work was fine nailing where glue wasn't enough. "I drilled little holes and put finishing nails in," he says. "It was very rewarding to see the realism start to take place."

Ev Weber creates farm displays in 1/16-scale to record the history of agriculture, creating displays like "The History of Harvesting," "The Evolution of the Tractor Starring Brass and Acrylic" and "The County Fair," among others (see Farm Collector, January 2005). "We plan each display five years or so in advance," Ev says, "and spend many years working on each display until we get it accurate and right."

Fellas, I shrunk my toys

With the proliferation of 1/64- and 1/32-scale farm toys during the 1980s, hobbyists turned to the smaller sizes. Mike Schlangen, Farming, Minn., chose 1/64-scale because small toys are cheaper and more versatile.

"Making a shed for the 1/16-scale toys alone would cost a fortune," he says. "Think how big a barn you'd need to make it really look like a farm. You'd need a whole house to put it in. With 1/64, I don't have any of those problems, and I can move things around easily. The fun is in taking my toys, setting everything up and then changing it. I change it every two weeks or so, pretending I'm moving to a different farm."

Jake Mehr, also from Farming, uses much of the upper floor of the farmhouse he and his brother occupy for his farm display. He started with 1/64-scale because he could get several small toys for the same price as one large one.

As a kid, he and his friends played in the basement on weekends. "We had a pile of dirt in the corner where we'd take our little dozers, or haul a little dirt or sand in gravity boxes, or make little hay piles that we'd drive over to pack it down," he recalls. "Dad said packing the hay down fermented the feed, so that's what we did. You could get more on a pile that way, too."

During that time Jake noticed his knees were sore every morning when he got out of bed. At first he couldn't figure out why. "Then I realized it was because I was always kneeling on the ground when we played with the toys," he says. So he began putting the toys on top of cardboard boxes, raising them a level so he could sit to play instead of kneeling.

Resourcefulness pays off

Like farmers, farm toy collectors invent what they can't buy or afford. Carlyle Greibrok couldn't figure out how to make soybean rows that looked real until he turned to indoor-outdoor carpeting. 'Cut two strands off, turn it upside down and that makes a good soybean row for approximately June.'

Jake Mehr wanted to be able to look into his sheds more easily, so he crafted Plexiglas roofs hinged at the highest point, so any portion of the roof can be lifted as needed.

He wanted more realistic shed doors, so he used string and cardboard to open the door. Later he experimented with wood, and then Plexiglas. Jake cut a piece of Plexiglas just larger than the door opening, screwed eyehooks into the shed and glued them on back of the Plexiglas. Then he attached a dowel rod to the top of the door, and the dowel and door slide back and forth, just like real doors do.

Jake has improved his overhead doors too. "First I used little cardboard pieces," he says, "and then I thought of using narrow strips of wood attached to duct tape. Now the door folds as it goes up and down."

To connect his two toy display rooms, Jake made a road from room to room with a 6-inch-wide board. "Now we can drive everything back and forth to the sales barn, dairy barn, heifer shed, hog shed and everything else in both rooms."

As kids, Rick Campbell (then of Watertown, Minn., and now of Apple River, Wis.), his brother and two neighbors built their own small town in a sand pile. "We had designated fields, businesses, dealerships, even our own water system (pop and beer cans cut open on both ends and buried in the sand)," he says. A reservoir was lined with old shingles to prevent water loss. The crew filled the upper reservoir with a 5-gallon pail of water, opened the gates and watched the water run through. "We had it tapped off to all the little businesses and everything," Rick says. "We even had manhole covers that we could take off to check the water."

Chris Burmeister sifts dirt through a flour sifter to make sure it's pure and fine, uses twigs for tree trunks, brass strips for roof gutters, and tiny pieces of wood set together with tweezers and wood glue to craft shutters and windows. Chris finds pictures of furniture and curtains in department store catalogs and pastes them inside the windows of his farm homes, facing out, to add realism.

When he's traveling, Chris sometimes stops to ask if he can look at a farm that catches his eye. "I explain that I build miniature farm buildings," he says. "If it's okay, I take pictures of all sides of buildings and get the dimensions, and aerial photos if possible."

He designs his displays on a 4-by-8-foot paper before he starts building. Several 2-inch pieces of Styrofoam insulation glued together make the base for his displays. He uses a hot crafter's knife and a fine-toothed sander to cut hills, ditches, slopes and driveways. "Then it looks like landscaping on a farm place," Chris says. "I try to replicate what the place looks like, and have a few hills so you can have tractors plowing on the side of the hill."

Labor of love

Jim Willey of Delhi, Iowa, got his start with farm displays while working as marketing director for the Ertl Co. of Dyersville, Iowa (he now owns his own business). During that time he was asked to make a farm display for the Midwest theme area at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. With his family's help, he created a farm display and set it up onsite.

The next day Jim discovered that vandals had destroyed the display. "The buildings were in tatters and all that was left of the animals was the hooves, which had been glued to the set," he recalls. He and his son spent a sleepless night rebuilding the display.

Jim admits it was very difficult to see the destroyed display. "These dioramas are labors of love," he says. "You don't do it just because you're getting paid to as part of your job. There's more to it than that." The rebuilt exhibit, newly topped by a fiberglass cover, was on display for six months. Today it and other layouts Jim has crafted are on display at the National Farm Toy Museum.

Diorama builders particularly enjoy seeing reactions to their work. "In Florida we got a range of reactions, from people who were mildly interested ("Oh, that's what a farm view looks like!"), to kids who were excited and wanted to be able to do the same thing," Jim says. Reactions from crowds at the National FFA Convention were very different. "They are all farm kids, of course, and they really get going," Jim says. "Some come back in later years with dioramas for the annual diorama competition at the National Farm Toy Show."

Just do it!

Interested in building your own diorama? Just do it, Jim says. "Experiment. Fog with spray paint to make a building look weathered. Find something rusty, rub your hands against it and then rub your hands across a pole building to make it look old."

Work with different materials, and give thought to how your project will be displayed. "The air-conditioned museum at Dyersville is a perfect environment," Jim notes, discussing various glues. "But if the diorama is displayed in a tent at a state fair, it's a whole different deal. The biggest thing is to experiment and see what works. If it's a short-term layout, you can use organic materials that will disappear in a few weeks. If it's a long-term layout, use less natural material."

The best scenario, Jim says, is one in which the builder has fun crafting the display, then displays it at a nursing home or school where others get to enjoy it. 'You're just a big kid playing with toys again. But you call it a 'display' or 'diorama' or 'layout' because you don't want to say you're playing with toys," he says with a laugh. FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com 


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