Wooden Models Bring Past to Life

Craftsman recreates the farm equipment of his youth by working in wood.

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Melvin Ehlert with his handmade Farmcrest 8 seeder, a complicated project.

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Glue is what got Melvin Ehlert, Sauk Centre, Minn., stuck on building wood models of old farm equipment and tractors, including two that run. "I was retired at the time, and I saw an old farm sled someone had made, but it was all glued together," he says. "I saw that and I thought, 'By golly, I could make something like that.'"

But 84-year-old Melvin wanted to make his wooden model sled more original. He wanted to use nuts and bolts, and he wanted the finished piece to have the removable box he remembered from his days on the farm. "I told my children I used to drive a team of horses to the barn with that sled and load it full of manure by hand, and then haul it out to the field and spread it by hand with a fork."

Questions from his children sent him back to the drawing board. When they asked how the sled worked, he made a set of dump planks and demonstrated how a box filled with gravel was unloaded, lifting the removable sides and pulling out the dump planks under the gravel one by one.

Next, he made wooden models of a hayrack and a flare box. Each fits the frame and is interchangeable with the original box. That versatility allowed the real sled to be used for multiple tasks throughout the year. He recalls an era when his father and other local farmers used the sled-turned-wagon and a team of horses to haul gravel to rural roads. "That was during the WPA (Works Progress Administration) days during the Depression," he says. "That was how country roads originally got graveled."

Early memories made real

After his success with those models, Melvin decided to complete the set. "I decided to build whatever we had on the farm at home," he says. Thus followed the corn marker, hay bucker, harrow wood drag and stone boat.

The corn marker was used to score a grid in a field. Corn was planted with a hand planter at the points of intersection. The result was a field of symmetrical rows that could be cultivated in either direction. He last saw the marker used in 1930. "It was used mainly on hilly fields," he says.

The hay bucker that inspired Melvin's wooden model was used to push hay around on the farm. He says the device was especially useful the year his family moved from one farm to another eight miles away. "You didn't want to put the hay in the barn because it was so hard to get it back out for the move, so once the hay was raked with a dump rake, you got on the end of the windrow with the horses and pushed it with the hay bucker into a hay stack," he explains. "That way you didn't have to load and unload it by hand, because all hay was pitched by hand in those days." Later that fall and winter the hay was hauled to the family's new farm.

Melvin's model wood harrow revives memories of plain, old-fashioned hard work. "After the corn was planted or grain seeded, you'd drag the harrow across the field to smooth it over," he recalls. "It covered up drill tracks and corn planter tracks, and leveled the field off. When I used the drag, I had to walk behind it all day on loose ground. You couldn't stand on the drag because it would dig too deeply below where you stood. Rich people sat in a two-wheeled cart attached to the drag evener with a pipe and were pulled across the field. But we never had one of those."

Rocks were a constant hazard. "If you hit a rock while sitting on a gang plow, you would probably go flying," Melvin says with a chuckle. "That was what was fun about working in the fields years ago. Those were the good old days."

Ideally, of course, rocks were hauled away before they caused problems. Melvin's model stone boat recalls an era when equipment was devised for just such a task. Rocks too massive to lift were rolled onto a stone boat and hauled away. "There were a lot of different stone boats, but this is how I remember the one we had at home," he says.

Gambles Farmcrest serves as inspiration

From his series of "generic" early models, Melvin moved on to name-brand implements based on those he sold at the Albany, Minn., Gambles store where he worked. "People say Wal-Mart handles everything," he notes, "but in their day, Gambles did the same thing." At first, Gambles stores specialized in auto parts. Later the offering expanded to tools, hardware and clothing. In about 1946, the company began selling tractors, combines and a full line of farm implements.

In 1949 Melvin was put in charge of the Albany farm store and its line of Farmcrest machinery. "I sold the machinery, set it up, delivered it and did some of the service work," he says. "You name it, I did it."

With that background, Melvin decided to make wooden models of the Gambles Farmcrest line. Creating the Farmcrest 8 grain drill was a particular chore. He had to rebuild all of the individually made discs, as they wouldn't turn properly on the first try. On his second attempt, he made a little jig that drilled uniform holes in the center of each disc. "That was a little challenge, getting those done," he says. If he were doing it over again, he'd do things differently. "When a drill gets to the end of a row you raise it up, which shuts it off and saves seed," he explains. "I could have put that lever in at the time, but I didn't and now it's too late."

Melvin made a model manure spreader with a Farmcrest decal, but instead of painting it Farmcrest colors, he varnished it so it would represent other manure spreaders Gambles sold, including Galloway and Cockshutt. "Again, it was just something I got an idea to do," he muses. "I wondered how you could get those beaters to turn." Rubber bands had too much give, so he tried a hydraulic pump O-ring. The result is a working model. "When the right wheel of the manure spreader turns," he says, "the beaters go."

Building model tractors

Next came wooden models of tractors sold by Gambles. The first one was the Farmcrest 30, followed by the Cockshutt 20, 40 and 50 (the latter he made with a wide front). Working from photos and memory, he used a wood chisel to carve and cut the body from a piece of 2-by-4-inch lumber. Detail pieces, like oil cleaners, air filters and lights, were made from dowels.

Then came wheels and paint. He painted each tractor its correct color, adding the Farmcrest name on one and Cockshutt on the others. "The Farmcrest 30 was the only tractor with the Gambles name," he explains.

Melvin also made a CO-OP E-3 model tractor based on the real one built by Cockshutt Farm Equipment Co. of Canada, Ltd. In fact, he says, all three lines of tractors - Farmcrest, Cockshutt and CO-OP - are exactly the same, except for paint and decals. "Whether you bought the Gambles Farmcrest 30, the Cockshutt 30 or the CO-OP E-3," he says, "they were the same tractor." The Gambles Farmcrest and Cockshutt 30 tractors were the same color, Melvin says, with different side decals, though front grille decals both read "Cockshutt."

"On the other hand, CO-OP hid the Cockshutt name, and had 'CO-OP' on the front of their tractor, and their own color," he notes. "But there were no differences in the machines themselves."

Later Melvin discovered decals for the Gambles Farmcrest were available. "So I redid that tractor and put decals on it," he says, "and it looked much better."

A better idea

While working on those first model tractors, Melvin toyed with the idea of making a tractor that actually ran. That challenge was solved when he saw small electric motors at a toy show. "I bought two of them, and tested one in a prototype, just to see if I could get it done."

The problem, he discovered, was that the motor needed to be geared down. If it wasn't, the tractor ran too fast. After trial and error, he ended up using sets of big and small dowels cut pulley-thickness and mounted together against Plexiglas with metal rods through the center. O-rings from a hydraulic pump operated as belts to gear the motor down. "That was quite a job," he says, "getting the tractor speed to look ordinary, but keeping enough power to pull it."

The next problem was fitting everything into the limited space inside the tractor. Once he conquered that, he tackled a larger brand-name tractor that would actually run: another Gambles Farmcrest 30 model. "I had to gear it down four times with four different sets of pulleys to get it to run right," he says, again working in limited space inside the tractor.

"That Gambles Farmcrest 30 tractor was the first one with a live PTO," Melvin notes. With non-live PTO, a tractor that had to be stopped in the middle of, say, baling, also stopped the baler. "As soon as the clutch on the tractor was pushed in, everything stopped," he says. "You had to restart the whole load and that's where the machines always got plugged up." But with the advent of live PTO (driven off the flywheel of the engine) the PTO was there at all times. He added that this tractor was the first with a live hydraulic.

Gambles sold a lot of farm machinery, Melvin recalls. "The tractors came in by railcar-load from Canada," he says. "But eventually St. Cloud had a distribution point so after a while, we didn't have to order by the carload any more. We'd just go to St. Cloud and pick up what we needed."

His next project was a Ferguson 30. Not every Gambles dealer sold that model, but the one Melvin worked for in the early 1950s did. For this running model, he added a PTO. The body of the Ferguson was thicker than that of the Canadian-made tractors, so he had to glue four pieces of wood together instead of using a 2-by-4. Inside, after hooking up the wheels to the motor, he made a driveline for the PTO (which operates on this model).

Branching out

Melvin has built a few other items for his collection, including a Plexiglas box to hold his favorite farm toy, a factory-manufactured piece with Gambles Farmcrest 30 on it. "Just the fact that it had Gambles on it was enough for me to get it," he says.

He also built a case to contain a complete set of 10 tiny Hallmark Keepsake Miniature Series Edition tractors. "None of those tractors represent any special one," he says, "although one color is like the Minneapolis-Moline, another like John Deere, another like International." One of his daughters has given him a tractor from the series each Christmas for the past 10 years. His children have always been a big part of his hobby.

"All my building was just a challenge to see if I could get them done and make them work," he says. "I think the most fun of all was that I could show my six boys and six girls what I used to sell, service and deliver."

For more information, contact Melvin Ehlert at (320) 352-3646; email: mgehlert@mainstreetcom.com 

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; email: bvossler@juno.com