Varlen and Fern Carlson of rural Stanhope, Iowa, have a village in their backyard. The buildings in the tiny community, however, are built on a one-half to two-thirds scale, and are furnished with saleman’s samples, toys and child-size collectibles. The Carlsons call it Country Relics Little Village, and welcome visitors.
“I’ve been a collector most of my life, ever since I got out of high school,” said Varlen, a farmer.
He specializes in International Harvester tractors and memorabilia. The Carlsons have used IH equipment almost exclusively since Varlen’s grandfather switched from horses to a 10-20 McCormick Deering tractor. Varlen is a regular on the show circuit: he has taken a mobile trailer filled with memorabilia from the companies that formed International Harvester to tractor shows throughout the country.
His collection also includes an almost-complete set of cast iron toy tractors and implements made by the Arcade Toy Company in Freeport, Ill., and given or sold to IH patrons in the 1930s and ’40s. Trinkets include tape measures, games, match holders, ashtrays and yardsticks.
At home, Varlen has “a few (17) full-size tractors,” the oldest of which is a 10-20 Titan made around 1916. He also has 26 pedal tractors (dating from the 1940s to the present) manufactured by the Eska and Ertl companies.
While Varlen attends gas engine and tractor shows and swap meets, Fern said she “survived” by scouring flea markets for toys and children’s furnishings. Those items fascinated her, she said, because she grew up during the Depression with few toys.
Country Relics Little Village traces its start to a 1981 farm auction, where the Carlsons bought a two-room playhouse. They intended to use the building as a playhouse for their grandchildren, but the couple soon began filling it with children’s furniture and accessories typical of the 1920s and ’30s.
The Carlsons then built a barn near the little house, and eventually added a one-room school, a general store, country church, livery stable and other buildings. The village was opened to the public in 1990 and, a year later, was named the Iowa Tourism Attraction of the Year.
The 1882 Stanhope town hall and fire station, which the Carlsons moved to their farm for renovation in 1992, now houses a replica of the Hove & Mathre McCormick Machines Dealership that once operated in Stanhope. The display includes an animated mannequin who “talks” to visitors, a lecture chart with illustrations and diagrams printed on 15 muslin sheets, wrenches, paper items, gasoline engines and International Harvester hats.
At Christmas time, thousands of holiday lights set the tiny community aglow, and lanterns brighten the paths between buildings.
The Carlsons host a “Christmas Stroll” on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from the Friday after Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, or on weekdays during the same period by chance or appointment.
Christmas decorations festoon the miniature buildings, and Fern dresses the 103 mannequin “residents” for the holidays. Father Christmas (Varlen) wears a long red coat with fur trim and matching hat, and Fern portrays Mrs. Christmas with a black fur Persian lamb cape, hat and long skirt.
The livery features a manger scene. Carolers perform in the church, while in the school, a recitation program is depicted.
Christmas lights also outline the Stanhope depot, which the Carlsons moved to their farm in 1979 to serve as a gift shop. A Farmall Regular tractor also is outlined with lights, complete with wheels that appear to be moving.
The gift shop’s wares include toys reminiscent of the past: marbles, jacks, harmonicas, yo-yos, and tin mechanical toys. Guests warm up next to a pot-bellied stove while sampling hot cider, or Fern’s special peanut brittle.
No matter what time of year it is, the Carlsons continue to collect.
“He’s still basically collecting things related to IH and farm-related items. I’m doing the collecting for the village,” Fern said. “But when we go antiquing, he finds things that fit in the village, and I find things related to the machinery collection. We’re partners in this venture, that’s for sure.” FC
For more information: Country Relics Little Village is located on Highway 17 North, 1.5 miles north of Stanhope, Iowa. (515) 826-4386. E-mail: email@example.com.
Dianne Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.