National Farm Toy Show

Author Photo
By Sam Moore

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The National Farm Toy Museum.
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The official toy of the 2008 National Farm Toy Show: a 1/32-scale Allis-Chalmers 7580 tractor made by Ertl.
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Assembling 1/64-scale toy tractors at Scale Model Toys.
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An outside vendor’s display table.

In November 2008, I attended the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa, with a couple of friends.

Both of these guys are keen collectors of farm toys, and one is also heavily into pedal tractors.

This was my first trip to the Dyersville show: I’m not really a toy collector, although I do have 20 or so toy trucks, cars and tractors sitting around.

Dyersville, a small town of about 4,000, styles itself as the “Farm Toy Capital of the World,” because of the presence of the famous Ertl Co., toy manufacturers Scale Model Toys and SpecCast, and the National Farm Toy Museum.

We arrived early Friday morning. Although the show didn’t start until 6 p.m., there was plenty to see. We made the rounds of the farm equipment dealerships in Dyersville, each of which had all their toys on display along with refreshments.

Of course a visit to the Ertl warehouse was necessary. There we were treated to a preview of new Ertl products that will be released during the coming year. Then we moved on to SpecCast, where we viewed the fine, precision models they produce. At Scale Model Toys, we each received a small plastic toy tractor and watched tractors in 1/64-scale as they were put together on an assembly line.

Pedal tractors are big business and we checked out Samuelson’s Pedal Tractors, a store that specializes in both new and used pedal tractors, as well as repair parts such as wheels and tires, seats, grilles, steering wheels, pedals, chains, and decals. Some of the old pedal tractors are valuable, with Samuelson offering several priced over $1,000. They had a mint condition, original Case 400 for which they were asking $4,000.

Everyone visits Evers Toy Store & Doll Museum in downtown Dyersville. There you’ll find thousands of new toys of all kinds. A flea market was set up in a vacant lot nearby, but it was too cold to spend any time there.

Two popular attractions were housed in a building at the Dyersville Commercial Club Park. The one that interested me the most was a model of a barn and three outbuildings based upon a real barn located near Harrisburg, Pa.

In each of the four gable ends of the huge Gothic style barn is a large, louvered ventilator built in the shape of a five-point star. That and a large central cupola topped by a spire give the structure, constructed in 1872, its unique appearance, as well as its moniker of the Star Barn. The three outbuildings (a chicken house, hog house and a double, drive-through corn crib) are all two-story and built in the same style as the barn with cupolas and spires (but no star-shape ventilators).

The models, built in 1/12-scale, are correct in every detail. They were constructed by Terry Spahr, El Segundo, Calif. The model is huge: The barn measures 5 feet by almost 10 feet and is 5 feet from the base to the top of the spire.

The other attraction was a toy tractor and truck pull put on by the National Micro-Mini Tractor Pullers Association. It featured 3- and 5-pound 1/16-scale toy trucks and tractors powered by model airplane engines. These noisy little buggers pull a miniature weight sled down a 16-foot Formica track and are capable of pulling nearly 100 times their own weight. I’d never seen (or heard) anything like it before.

Part of the show itself was held in a large room at the National Farm Toy Museum, but the bulk of it was in Dyersville’s Beckman High School, which cancels classes for the event. The gym, cafeteria, four long hallways and 21 classrooms were jammed with exhibits and vendors. I never saw so many toys gathered in one spot in my life, nor so many people. You could hardly push through the crush in the aisles. The nation’s economic woes didn’t seem to hurt business as I saw lots of dollars changing hands.

Several classrooms contained elaborate dioramas depicting farms and farm equipment dealerships. Many were put together by young boys, while others were family projects and some were labors of love by old timers like me. These exhibits were judged, with each proudly displaying the trophy it won.

The most expensive pedal tractor I saw was a super rare (according to Wayne Cooper – I sure don’t know) Ford 901 that had a price tag of $4,500. Toy tractors were all over the map in price, with many selling for upwards of $500. I didn’t attend Saturday’s toy auction, but I heard a cast iron Vindex John Deere D tractor from the 1930s was hammered down at over $4,500.

Some of the new toys have incredible detail (with prices to match). I examined a model of the giant Big Bud articulated, 4-wheel drive tractor. Its cab was lifted, allowing full view of the engine compartment. Every tiny component, wire and hose of the original was faithfully replicated on that 1/16-scale model! Of course the price reflected the detail (I think it was $695).

Naturally I had to spend some of my hard-earned money. When I was a kid, I had an Ertl John Deere Model A tractor and manure spreader, which, while not the first of the Ertl line, was one of Fred Ertl’s early offerings. I don’t know what ever happened to my tractor and spreader, but I’ve always thought it would be fun to have a set just like it. Well, there were several of that vintage Model A tractors and John Deere spreaders for sale. I consulted Wayne Cooper for advice and bought a set for $100. The tractor has been repainted (but looks just as I remember) while the spreader is nice and original, and I’m happy with them.

I also bought (for just $20) a new 1/43-scale model of an English Fordson E27N to replace the real one that was destroyed in my barn fire some years ago.

My friends did OK as well. One brought home several models he’d been looking for, while the other stocked up on pedal tractor parts and bought some items his grandson had asked him to get.

All in all, it was a good trip and I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll become a regular like my friends and thousands of others who go every year. FC

For more information: The 32nd annual National Farm Toy Show will be held Nov. 6-8, 2009. The National Farm Toy Museum is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except on major holidays. The museum is located at the junction of U.S. Highway 20 and State Highway 136 in Dyersville, Iowa, 20 miles west of Dubuque. Contact the National Farm Toy Museum at 1110 6th Ave. Ct. S.E., Dyersville, IA 52040; (563) 875-2727; e-mail: farmtoys@dyersville.com; online at www.nationalfarmtoymuseum.com.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

Farmer-Collectors Flock to National Farm Toy Show

Author Photo
By Farm Collector Staff

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Bill Panncke, one of 10 outdoor vendors who have been at the National Farm Toy show for the past 10 years, shows some of his wares.
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Terry Rouch, Royal Center, Ind., displays his scratch-built toys at the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville each year.
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Steve Helphrey and his daughter attend the National Farm Toy Show, where she helps him sell tractors like these John Deere toys.
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Jim Lord, Evanston, Ill., shows another side of the National Farm Toy Show: He exhibits Winross trucks, as shown here.
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Walter Reiff comes from Germany each year to take in the National Farm Toy Show.
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Clayton Hendrix, photographed several years ago at the National Farm Toy Show, with his silver-plated gift tractor .

Collectors cluster around tables, sharing snapshots of their “favorites” – farm toys, not grandchildren. They plunk down hard money for “floor rights,” which means they get first pick of toys being sold by vendors, and sometimes, they even encounter old friends with whom they have shared, unknowingly, a passion for farm toys for years.

They are among the 20,000 collectors from all across the United States and abroad who attended the National Farm Toy Show, held the first weekend in November annually since 1978 in Dyersville, Iowa. Most are middle-aged men, many of whom have “gone public” with their hobby, thanks in large part to the efforts of the late Claire Scheibe of LaMoure, N.D.

For many years, it did not appear seemly for big, burly farmers to love and collect small farm toys. So for many years, collectors hid their collections and their interest, literally in the closet. When they wanted toys, they studied those at their local farm implement dealership, and as they placed them on the counter and reached for their billfolds, casually mentioned that they were buying the toys ‘for my children’ or ‘for my grandchildren.’

Claire and his wife, Cathy, changed all that in the late 1970s. He was farming and running an antique business called S & S Antiques in 1976, when he began buying farms toys while on antiquing forays around the Midwest. The same year, he also purchased in bulk 100 Ertl toys, being sold for $2 each in a special offering by the Ertl Company in Dyersville.

Recounting the story earlier, Claire said, “By that time I was already known as the toy tractor guy in North Dakota. People were asking me if I had this tractor or knew of someone who did.” To sell his new inventory, he started sending out typed lists of toys, which in time turned into Toy Farmer magazine, the premier magazine of the farm toy industry today.

As interest in the hobby continued to increase, Claire and Cathy started the National Farm Toy Show, and both the show and the publications helped legitimize farm toy collecting – and brought many farmer-collectors out of the closet.

The Scheibes picked Dyersville as the show’s location for several reasons. That’s where Fred Ertl Sr. began his first toy company, The Ertl Company, in the mid-1940s. Second, other major farm toy companies also have sprung up in this northeastern Iowa town, including Spec-Cast Company and Scale Models, which was started by Joe Ertl, Fred Sr.’s son. All three companies still operate in Dyersville, though the Ertl Company has changed hands several times and now goes under the name Racing Champions/Ertl Company. In addition, other smaller farm toy companies have operated in Dyersville from time to time, including some that continue today. Among those in business now is F.F. Ertl III, Inc., started by Fred Ertl Sr.’s grandson Fred Ertl III.

Many times at the Dyersville shows, collectors would discover, quite by accident, acquaintances who share the same interest. Joe Male of Millington, Ill., says he still sees those accidental encounters. “I’m watching the crowd go by,” he says of the National, “and I’ll see two men stop and start talking. ‘Wow, what are you doing here?’ ‘I collect toys.’ ‘I never knew that!’ These are neighbors who have known each other for years, or people who have worked together, and they both collect toys, but they never knew that the other one collected.

“But at a farm toy show, they’re safe. I think there are still quite a few closet collectors who collect toys, or want to collect toys, but they don’t advertise it because they’re still afraid that they’ll be judged that they’re still children.”

The most recent National Farm Toy Show, the 24th annual, has changed considerably from the first shows, which drew a few dozen vendors, set up in one building. Today the show sprawls all across Dyersville. It is headquartered at Beckman High School, where the cafeteria, hallways, classrooms and gymnasium are filled with more than 150 tables of vendors, as well as farm toy displays.

Each year a prize is awarded for the best display. Some feature tractors, but many are of miniature farms with barn and shed roofs open, tractors moving under battery power in the fields, truck hoists lifting and falling, and even minnows swimming in miniature streams.

Half a block away, the new National Farm Toy Museum houses not only a retrospective exhibition containing thousands of toys, but a gymnasium filled with another 100 vendors. Dozens also hawk their wares in the great outdoors, on plots marked off west and south of the museum, and several blocks away, the Dyersville Commercial Club Park building houses yet another 50 vendors. And across the city during the three-day extravaganza, various stores, other companies, and even private citizens also sell farm toys. All around the city, visitors see makeshift signs reading such things as: “Old toys one block,” “Big toy sale” and “Rummage sale.”

The Museum itself is a “must-see” for many showgoers; much of the collection has been donated by long-time collectors. Featured are a variety of rare toys, including the first tractor Fred Ertl Sr. ever made, in the furnace in his basement in 1945 – an Allis-Chalmers WC, in about 1/16 scale. There also are old dies used to make Ertl toys and information on the methods of their manufacture.

Collectors enjoy the toys a great deal, but they also come to Dyersville to interact with each other. They enjoy meeting the legends in the farm toy field, seeing old friends and making new ones. Les Nesvig, also from LaMoure, N.D., said after his first show, “It was hard for me to imagine that people could be so interested in toy collecting, and would take this much time off and drive this distance. I’m amazed at how warm the people are. Time after time, I’ve heard that the greatest thing about toy collecting is the people. It’s true. Even though this was my first time, I felt accepted, even loved.”

Walter Reiff of Eberdingen, Germany, makes the National a regular stop during his annual two-week visit to the United States, and Sandy Mill of Chester, England, shows up every year, too. He says he comes to sell toys and visit with old friends, and because Dyersville was where he fell in love with farm toy collecting: “I saw the John Deere toys and knew Sigomec had made promotional John Deere toys in Argentina, so I picked up a couple of them and began selling toys.” Like many collectors, Sandy sells toys so he can buy more for his own collection.

In the farm toy hobby, serious collectors can pay extra money at many shows, including the National, for “floor rights,” which allow them specific and extra time out on the floor before the masses of collectors come through the doors. At the National, that time is from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the first day, and from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. on the second and third days. After those times, collectors who did not pay the special fee stream onto the floors to search for their favorite toys, or toys they haven’t been able to find elsewhere.

Gary Wandmacher of Prescott, Wis., said he had been trying for years to find all the varieties of the Reuhl-manufactured Massey-Harris toy combines. As he and his wife were leaving the show this year, Gary wanted to go out the front door, but his wife convinced him to take a shortcut across the gym. “Just as we were crossing the corner of the gym, I found that last variety of the Reuhl combine that I’d been looking for,” he said. “My wife said, ‘You didn’t see that’, and I said, ‘Yes I did,’ and I proceeded to buy it.”

Some collectors enjoy the fun of dickering over toy prices, which are often fluid, and many vendors brag that in all their years of farm-toy selling, they’ve never had a bad check. The farm toy hobby has come a long ways in the past 25 years. Perhaps the greatest change is, as Claire Scheibe once said, “A grown person can now collect farm toys, just like collecting rocks or stamps or coins.” The annual National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville certainly is tangible proof.

Acts of Kindness Typical

Just a few acts of kindness show how unusual members of the farm toy community are, and the National Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa, is one venue where that really gets played out. The vendors often times give toys away to children, or make special deals with them if they don’t have enough money for a particular toy, but sometimes collectors do inexplicably wonderful things to make other collectors feel good.

A classic example of the latter occurred a few years ago at the National when word got out that an 11-year-old collector of John Deere toys would be coming to his first – and last -National Farm Toy Show. The boy was Clayton Hendrix, and he was dying of incurable brain cancer.

In an interview at the time, Clayton said, “This is my first National. We traveled from Liberty, Ind. I’ve gone to the Greenville, Ohio, show, which I thought was pretty big, but this… I never imagined a big tractor show like this. I’ve really enjoyed the National for what has gone by. I really feel good about being here, looking at all the toys, and thinking if I’m going to buy one or not, and seeing how good of shape they are in and what kind of quality they have.”

At that show, Clayton attended his first toy auction, another annual National event, where the rarest of the rare toys are put up for sale. Before the auction, Clayton clambered unsteadily up onto the stage – the tumor was affecting his balance, hearing and eyesight – to examine the auction tractors, which were laid out on the tables. Never suspecting what would happen later, he said, “They had some pretty nice tractors, especially the gold ones.”

About halfway through the bidding, auctioneer Wally Hooker called Clayton’s name and asked him to come up onstage again. Clayton walked back to the stage, keeping his balance by holding onto chair backs, while the audience waited in anticipation. On stage, Hooker picked up a silver-plated, 1/16-scale John Deere 4960 tractor that Don Slama of Wisconsin had won at auction and handed it to the boy, saying simply, “This is for you, Clayton.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. FC

Bill Vossler lives in Rockville, Minn. He can be reached by calling (320) 253-5414 or by e-mail at bvossler@juno.com.

Published on Jan 1, 2002

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment