Cast iron seats, toolboxes and more find a home in this Iowa collection
After being whopped across the back of the head with reins for forgetting his job on the corn planter, no daydreaming youth in 1860 would have dreamed his dropper seat would one day be a collector’s item. But 150 years later, Tom Wilson, Blue Grass, Iowa, knows all about those seats. He has a keen appreciation for their role in the history of American agriculture – so keen that he displays his favorites in his home, where he is constantly reminded of their significance.
“Following the invention of the corn planter by George W. Brown in 1852, a cutter sleigh was driven back and forth across the field to make cross-hatched lines as a guide,” Tom explains. “The corn planter came next. A kid sat on a ‘dropper’ seat behind the horses; his father was in a seat behind him. When the corn planter passed a line, the kid shoved a shaker handle back and forth, dropping seeds into the soil. Any time the kid wasn’t paying attention, he’d get hit by the tail of the horse, or the reins by his father.”
Original corn planter dropper seats were made of wood. “Those round wood seats are pretty hard to find,” he says, “and hard to reproduce because of the detailed stenciling.” Tom saw a beautiful Deere & Mansur Co. round wood seat at a recent auction. “I have the same seat in poor condition, so I thought this one would be nice to have,” he says, “until it went for $5,000.”
Cast iron seats, first used in about 1850, are a more accessible alternative for most collectors. While many people refer to cast iron seats as “tractor seats,” very few actually came from tractors. “Most cast iron seats come from antique farm equipment from about 1860-1900,” Tom says, “from corn planters, binders, tedders, reapers and so on.”
President of the 400-member Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association (CISCA), Tom explains that serious collectors prefer cast iron seats because they’re legitimate, valuable antiques. “If you’re going to put out money for this stuff, you hope it holds its value,” Tom says. “Pressed-steel seats don’t bring a lot of money.”
Tom’s favorite seats include several that belonged to his father, Terry, who died in 2006. One of those is a red Morrison Mfg. Co. seat. Rated a 10 (see For Cast Iron Seat Collectors, Friedly Book Is the Bible), it is the most expensive seat Terry bought. It has the added attraction of coming from Iowa, Tom says: Morrison was based in Fort Madison, Iowa.
An Iowa seat, one of his dad’s prized possessions, and a St. Paul Plow Works seat are also favorites. Tom has been unable to find any information about the Iowa seat, and the St. Paul piece came from a collector Tom has known since childhood. “It’s a very rare 10, and it means a lot to me, too,” he says. “Every seat I have has a story.”
And all of those stories are wrapped in family ties. “This iron meant enough to Mom that at Dad’s service they actually displayed the Iowa seat and cast iron Deere toolbox,” Tom says. “These all mean quite a bit to me because they meant a lot to him.”
Compared to steam engines or tractors, seats are a compact collectible. Still, there are challenges in displaying them. “Most collectors will tell you that,” Tom says, noting that he displays his favorites in the house, where he can see them every day. “I have 370 seats,” he says, “so how do you display them unless you have a lot of money to erect a big building?”
One collector he knows, who lives in the West, mounted his seats on the exterior wall of a steel building. “I was blown away, because they could be stolen. And the weather can be hard on seats,” Tom says. “But he said he’s never had a problem with theft or rust. Here in Iowa I wouldn’t put good iron outside.”
A second problem involves reproductions. “If you don’t know what you’re doing on eBay, you won’t know whether you’re looking at reproductions or real seats,” Tom cautions. “Hard-core collectors usually know which ones have been targeted for reproduction.”
Take seats bearing the name of a famed tractor manufacturer. If you find a seat reading “John Deere,” it’s likely a reproduction. “Hard-core seat people know it’s not old and was probably made overseas,” Tom says, “because old Deere seats say ‘Deere & Company.’”
Tom follows sound criteria when adding seats to his collection. “If it’s common, busted up and I don’t have it, I’ll wait for another one in better condition,” he says. “If it’s rare and damaged, and I don’t have it, I might pick it up, or at least try to. If it’s higher-end and rated 9 or 10, I’ll probably try to buy it for trading stock.”
Seats sold at auctions undergo particularly close examination. “People look those seats over very hard,” Tom says. “Some collectors are very particular about cracks, so if they think the seat was damaged and smoothed with body putty, they won’t show much interest. Seat backs aren’t painted, so collectors can see it wasn’t fixed and isn’t a repro. Because the front is always on display, that’s where your effort goes if you want to make it look nice.”
Tom prefers seats with the original patina, or shine, to them. “I think a patina makes the seat look older and more authentic than a repaint,” he says. “The only time I’ll sandblast and repaint a seat is if it has a poor paint job or rough rust that will prevent reclaiming a good patina. I prefer the patina, because once you paint you can never return to the original.”
The search for one prize sometimes leads to another. On his way to Missouri, where he’d made arrangements to pick up a St. Paul Plow Works seat, Tom stopped in at a small antique shop. There, a cane leaning against a display case drew him in. “As my eyes went down the cane, there sat a Black Hawk toolbox,” Tom recalls. “Only three had been known before. They came off horse-drawn listers used mostly in Nebraska and Kansas to break sod. It was in perfect shape, so that really made my day.”
Using the Black Hawk toolbox, he staged a practical joke on the seat club’s vice president who was coming to visit Tom. “I knew he’d go to the refrigerator for a Pepsi, so I set the Black Hawk toolbox in the refrigerator, filled with cans of Pepsi,” Tom says. “We had quite a bit of fun with that.”
Tom rarely takes his show on the road. “I did set up a table to peddle stuff and show a few pieces when we had the Cast Iron Seat Collectors annual meeting in conjunction with the annual Little Log House Antique Power Show in Hastings, Minn.,” he says. “A few guys in the club have trailers that tote their stuff around, but I’ve never done it on a big scale. It’s a lot of hard work.”
People unfamiliar with the hobby are astonished by Tom’s collection. “They’ll ask, ‘what in the world are you doing with that?’ Others will ask, ‘what the heck is that?’ or ‘why do you have a hog oiler in the house?’ That usually gets a chuckle,” he says. “The easy answer is that once you pay a lot of money for them, you don’t want them in the back of your barn, because they’re so valuable.”
But those in the know are duly impressed. “It’s fun when someone comes to my house and sees what I’ve got,” he says. “There’s a lot of pride of ownership. I like to have fun with things, and you have to have fun with the collection, otherwise people disengage.”
In his position as CISCA president, Tom makes an effort to get out and see members’ collections. “It’s not about the iron,” he says. “It’s about the people. People have to feel included or it won’t work. Any collecting is about the relationships with people. The friendships really make it fun. When you’re going to an event, you can call a club member and see if you can swing by and look at their collection.”
And most of the time, there’s more to those collections than just cast iron seats. “In my case, besides the seats I have 40 toolboxes, 70 planter lids, 30 hog oilers, 150 hay carriers and countless miscellaneous items,” he says.
“I guess what makes me keep pouring money into my collection is that it’s a little habitual,” Tom admits. “The adrenaline rush from an eBay auction or public sale is pretty fun. Seeing people you know from all over the country come together and knowing there’s a common thread between us. Trying to have all of one style of something, like getting all the Iowa seats or all the Hayes planter lids. Trying to find out where pieces were made and what machine they went on. To be recognized as a collector is a pretty cool thing. I wish Dad were here to see the article in Farm Collector. That would be cool.”
For Tom, the lowly cast iron seat is a tangible key to the past; a revolutionary feature that took the farmer from walking to riding at a time when life in the U.S. revolved around farming. “Think of the history reflected in cast iron seats, from Lincoln and the Civil War in 1861, to the railroads, Sitting Bull, Custer, Crazy Horse – they were all alive when these seats and cast iron toolboxes and hog oilers were being used,” he marvels. “To see that these items survived scrap collections from the World Wars, and have come down through 150 years undamaged, is just amazing.
“By collecting, all I’m doing is holding things for the next generation to hopefully enjoy,” he says, “and perhaps be a part of understanding where our country has come from.” FC
For more information:
– Annual membership dues of $30 may be sent to Cast Iron Seat Collectors Assn. Secretary Charolette Traxler, 40874 231 Ave., Le Center, MN 56057; check out the group on Facebook.
– Spring Seat Meet, April 13-14, Brampton, Ontario, Canada; Summer Seat Meet, July 12-15, Winamac, Ind.
– Tom Wilson: (563) 210-6836; email email@example.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 Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa Jost is a photographer living in Iowa. Email her at email@example.com.
To learn more about cast iron seat collecting and other farm collectibles, check out these related articles:
• The Rise of Cast Iron Implement Seats
• Getting to the Bottom of Cast Iron Seat Collecting
• The Character of Corn Planter Lids