Toymaker with a Vision

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Massey-Harris 44 tractor in 1/16 scale

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In the early 1950s, Bobby Pusch of Issaquah, Minn., wrote a letter to Reuhl Products, Inc., of Madison Wis.: 'I have just received your Massey-Harris (toy) row crop tractor. I must congratulate your company on the making of the best 44 on the market. However, you can understand me when I say I may have a problem. My rear wheel broke while plowing my left, and most important, field. As the time for spring plowing is fast growing to a close, I would appreciate an extra special rush order on this wheel.'

This letter reflects what Reuhl farm toys were all about: realistic, of high quality -and repairable. Thus, manufacturing Reuhl toys proved a double-edged sword: two of the qualities that endeared them to a generation of youngsters - quality and parts service - became their undoing.

Reuhl Products began in the 1930s in the mind of Andy Reul of Madison, who added an 'h' to the company name as a pronounciation aid - ('roul').

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1934, he landed a non-descript job with the Lew Morrisson Fly Company - apparently any job was better than no job with the Great Depression in full swing. And as Nick Russo and Greg Stanmar write in the Introduction to A Dream Comes True, by Allan Hoover, '... (Reul) had a history of being unhappy where his life was heading.'

Next, Reul worked with the Wisconsin Beverage Tax Division, and then he took over his father's implement business in Helenville, Wis. 'The company prospered,' Russo and Stanmar write, 'but this too was not where Reul wanted to make his mark in life. He finally talked his doubtful wife into going to Madison. Once there he began building toy boats in his basement, testing them in the bathtub.'

This turned out to be something he really enjoyed, and he reasoned that airplane hobbyists would welcome a second use for their expensive flying model airplane engines, which until then could only be used in flying.

'(Reul's) basement and bathroom experiments,' write Russo and Stanmar, 'were aimed at developing a quality boat in which the airplane engines could be used, giving two uses for the tiny piston machines.'

So Reuhl Products, Inc. was officially formed, probably in 1940, although the year is undocumented.

The company's first toy, the 'D' Class Bakelite Hydroplane, would exhibit many of the traits that made the company successful: realism, quality, and kits of many parts to be set together (and taken apart) by the buyers, for fun or to replace parts. As the information on the Hydroplane says, 'One of the remarkable features of this kit is the revolutionary method of assembly. ... Detailed step by step instructions eliminate guesswork.'

When World War II began in 1941, Reuhl shut down because of a lack of materials, which were needed for the war effort, but the company reopened in the fall of 1945.

At that time, Reul still was not prepared to make farm or construction toys, the two types for which his company became known. Instead, he turned to toys like the Thompson submachine gun, a race car, an archer's bow that did not come to fruition and a 30-inch-tall sailboat, which many consider the company's most beautiful toy.

Then in the late 1940s, as farm and construction companies began to use scale models to promote their products, Reuhl began to get into farm toys.

The first Reuhl farm toy was the plastic International Harvester Farmall Cub, one of only three plastic models the company sold. This model, T-3000, was billed in company literature as a ''put-together' and 'take-apart' toy, an exact miniature replica of International Harvester's Farmall Cub Tractor.' The kit consisted of 21 plastic parts in a display box; it cost $2. Assembled, the toy cost $4.

'The Farmall Cub is like a game!,' the advertising touted. 'Can you put together this toy?'

Reuhl sold the Farmall Cub kit but did not manufacture it. Instead, Reuhl bought the parts from two other companies, Design Fabricators and Cruver Manufacturing Co., who owned the rights to make the toy Cub and who also sold their own versions of the Cub kits.

The second Reuhl farm toy was probably the Massey-Harris 44 Row Crop Tractor, which proved to be the company's biggest-selling toy ever. Each year, according to Russo and Stanmar, Reuhl filled from 50,000 to 100,000 orders. A 1953 letter probably tells why: Mrs. Harland H. wrote to say, 'I have never had a toy that has been enjoyed by both my son and husband half as much as the toy Massey-Harris tractor.'

Once the Massey-Harris 44 tractor began to sell so well, the natural next step was to make implements for it. These included a Massey-Harris l/20th-scale three-bottom mounted plow, an M-H Roadmaster wagon in 1/24 scale, an M-H loader made especially to fit the M-H 44 and an M-H disc harrow.

Reuhl also made the ever-popular Massey-Harris Clipper pull-type combine. 'Actually,' writes Hoover in his Reuhl book, '... the combine was first made by a foundry in Plymouth, Wis. Reuhl bought the dies and made some design changes, resulting in the familiar Reuhl Massey-Harris Clipper Combine.'

A number of Reuhl toys have different varieties, and the Clipper combine is one of them. Its varieties are determined by the type of hitch: one rotates, one points upward and one points down. Many collectors are determined to find them all.

Richard Birklid of Nome, N.D., owns one of these toy combines. 'They're highly detailed,' he says. 'Maybe they cost a little bit more (than other toys) when they were new. You can take them apart by taking out the screws. I'd like to get all of those.'

Reuhl also made a Massey-Harris self-propelled combine that is popular with collectors and that also comes in two styles: one with the driver's seat on the pedestal, which is the most common, and the rarer one with the seat on the grain tank.

One of Reuhl's most unusual toys was a grain drill: A superb drawing shows this Massey-Harris toy, but the drawing was as far as this toy got.

As author Hoover writes, 'If your search for the ever-elusive Massey-Harris Grain Drill by Reuhl has been unsuccessful, it's because it was never put on the production line. The misconception that such a piece exists probably stems from an artist's conception of the toy ... According to employees, Massey-Harris decided the tooling and production costs would be too high, so plans for the Grain Drill were dropped.'

In addition to farm toys, Reuhl also made a line of Caterpillar toys. The initial two, the Cat D-7 and 70 scraper, were Reuhl's second and third plastic toys, following the Farmall Cub. Like the Cub, they were sold in kits, and the rights to them both were owned by the same companies that owned the Cub rights. Reuhl made other Caterpillar toys as well: the DW-10 tractor, No. 10 scraper, No. 12 motor grader, No. 7S bulldozer blade and No. 18 ripper. Like all Reuhl toys, they were sturdy and well done.

A Feb. 14, 1952, letter from Allen Reynolds highlights these toys' popularity: 'My boys have certainly enjoyed the 'Cats' they got in 1950, but now we need a few parts. This is a logging district, and I think the men have had as much fun playing with them as little boys.'

Today, Reuhl collectors get pretty fanatic about their toys. Bernard Niewind of Eden Valley, Minn., has 12 Caterpillar crawlers, a dolly, ripper, scraper, maintainer, the hard-to-find Cedar Rapids rock crusher and the Lorain shovel.

'I'm fascinated with the Caterpillar crawlers,' he says, adding his Lorain shovel 'has most of its parts intact, which is unusual.'

Andy Reul's philosophy of toy building was to make them as well as they could be made, and by every measure, he succeeded. The company motto was 'Designed for ROUGH treatment,' and later altered to 'Designed for ROUGH TREATMENT AND WEAR.'

Customers agreed. One letter writer noted, 'I would like to commend you on the scale model for it is very durable, and has brought many hours of happiness to my four-year-old son.' Another said, 'You have the finest designed line I have ever seen.'

But quality had its drawbacks. First, the cost. To make toys well meant using high-quality materials and expensive labor, and Reuhl toys were very expensive for their time, the 1950s. The Massey-Harris 44 tractor, for example, sold for $3.50 while dime store toys were 69 cents. The Cat grader sold for $12.95, the Cat D-10 and the scraper cost $15.95, the Lorain shovel $16.95 and the Cedar Rapids rock crusher, a whopping $29.95.

The rock crushers were sold off the shelves for a while, but they moved so slowly Reuhl ended up giving them away to people who bought the real rock crushers.

'Because 99 percent of the scale models were sold to dealers,' Hoover writes, 'the high prices did not prevent a good sales picture. Retail stores, however, could not move the toys at those prices.

Marshall Fields in Chicago and Armstrongs in Cedar Rapids (doubtless due to the 'Cedar Rapids' name of the rock crusher) were the exceptions.'

Andy Reul used screws where every other company used rivets, or some other kind of permanent attachment.

Reuhl toys could be set together and taken apart time after time, and the parts were easily replaced, which meant that repeat business for the same toy new became almost nonexistent.

As one parent wrote, 'Our boys enjoy your toys very much. We bought them and screwdrivers, and they have taken them apart faithfully for weeks.'

The high-water mark for Reuhl arrived in 1951, with peak employment hitting 41 workers, but after that, business slipped slowly downhill, and in 1958, Reuhl closed without a whimper.

High prices, high quality and replaceable parts all probably contributed to the company's demise, but the major reason probably was contracts with Caterpillar and Massey-Harris to make their toys expired in 1958 and were not renewed.

As Hoover writes, 'The life span of Reuhl Products, Inc. is relatively short for a successful company. But while his Madison plant is only a memory, the toys he produced are some of the most highly regarded and highly collected scale models ever made. This legacy probably will never disappear.' FC

Farm toy collectibles expert, author and freelance writer Bill Vossler lives in Rockville, Minn. His latest book is The Complete Book of Farm Toys & Boxes. Contact him at bvossler@juno.com.