There was a time when sales of scale-model farm implements provided a reasonable revenue stream for Ervin Chupp. The Shipshewana, Indiana, man offered the models as a sideline in his bulk foods store.
But when his bulk foods sales expanded and he found it difficult to compete with prices set by individual vendors selling models, Ervin made a change. He backed away from the replicas and increased the variety of bulk foods on his shelves.
Although he no longer sold models, the Amish businessman sensed a strong interest in them among his customers. He decided to display his personal collection in his store. Today, shoppers at E&S Sales Bulk Foods enjoy viewing small-scale replicas of vintage wagons, buggies, corn pickers and tractors on the top level of store shelving. A small collection of Ervin’s most exclusive models decorates an upstairs office.
Out of each new release of the scale models Ervin sold, he kept one. After he stopped selling models, he continued to collect them. “We were surprised when shoppers came to the store just to see the collection,” he says. “Often, though they initially came to see the models, they decided to purchase food here, too. It was an unexpected benefit for us.”
When Ervin’s sons established Chupp Auctions & Real Estate in Shipshewana, it provided Ervin with another source for collectible models.
“With the responsibilities of our business, and because we travel by horse and buggy, it’s difficult for us to travel any distance to look at collectible models,” he says. “Sometimes shoppers have an item they want to sell. We’re always looking for rare and unique keepsakes. If someone has a collection they want to sell, we encourage them to visit our auction business.”
Ervin believes many of the rare pieces in his collection are salesman’s samples (see related article, Page 32), and he intends to keep those as family heirlooms. His most cherished pieces include a single bottom plow, a walk-behind plow, a horse-drawn field cultivator and a horse-drawn, ground-driven field mower. Each piece features all the working parts found on the full-size implement it represents.
“I used all those implements when I was growing up,” Ervin says. “That’s what makes them important to me. Most of these pieces have no brand identification, but they’re all in good condition and feature all the standard working parts. Detail on the cultivator seems especially incredible.”
His horse-drawn, single-bottom plow has a seat, a feature sometimes frowned upon in the 1800s, when farmers believed horses had enough work to do without carrying the driver.
Among the rare pieces displayed on the shelves at E&S Sales is a custom-made John Deere baler mounted on four wheels. Another rare scratch-built item is a fully operational, horse-drawn International Harvester Co. 9 hp hit-and-miss engine.
Unfortunately, nothing is known of the remarkable craftsmen who built the models. “These rare pieces come to us through dealers,” Ervin says, “so we have no idea who made them or what scale they’re in.”
Few Amish collect the types of items found in Ervin’s store, but the connection the models provide to his family’s farming roots are very meaningful to him.
“It makes me think of the days when I worked away from home, on a neighbor’s farm,” he says. “Our neighbor had modern farming equipment that I learned to operate. I have a great appreciation for mechanical things and all the details that make them work. Collecting these models seemed natural to me.”
Ervin also appreciates the opportunity the models give him and his family to connect with shoppers in their store. “It’s especially interesting to talk to people who have an interest in our collection,” he says. “One of the biggest problems we encounter with collecting the models is the competition from other collectors. Often, a piece I really admire also interests someone else and bidding competition kicks in.”
Ervin started developing his sales skills in 1973 with a small retail business housed in the basement of his home. There, the family sold groceries and discontinued Sears toys. In 1980, he sold the business and concentrated on farming. When the farm economy became difficult, Ervin and his wife, Sarah, established E&S Sales as a complement to the farm operation. They had three employees and housed their business in a 2,400-square-foot store.
In 1998, Ervin sold 25 percent of E&S Sales to his son, Duane. By 2000, with business continuing to expand, Ervin sold his farm. In 2005, he sold some of the toys from his collection, and began to focus more on salesman’s samples.
“Our store is now 23,000 square feet with another 47,000 square feet of warehouse space,” Ervin says. “We employ 110 people and about 90 percent of them are Amish. About half our patrons are Amish.” The store’s inventory includes 90 varieties of cheese, a small deli and lunch area and hundreds of bulk food items. It draws nearly 50,000 visitors a year.
Amish children are like children anywhere, Ervin says: They love toys – and ponies. “Ponies are harnessed, and racing with friends is a common activity,” he says. “Many of our original toys were handmade, usually out of wood. Our sons’ favorites were the 1/16-scale model tractors and equipment. Our boys had a miniature barn they used to set up make-believe auctions. That’s where my son found his interest in the auction business.
“While we enjoy our hobby, we keep our priorities in perspective,” Chupp adds. “God is first in our lives, then our family with the Amish culture we embrace. Finally, we cherish the opportunities God grants us by living in this great country. We want everyone who travels through northern Indiana to know they are always welcome to stop by.” FC
Whether they’re referred to as salesman’s samples, patent models or toys, tiny working models of antique farm equipment have fascinated millions of people since 1790, when they began appearing in America.
It can be a challenge to differentiate between salesman’s samples and patent models. Many patent models feature a handwritten tag indicating pertinent patent information. However, tags can easily be lost or discarded. And not every small object is either a salesman’s sample or a patent model. Some models are just models.
The U.S. Patent Office was created as part of the Patent Act of 1790. A three-member patent commission made up by the Secretary of State (then Thomas Jefferson), Secretary of War (Henry Knox) and Attorney General (Edmund Randolph) was empowered as the governing body. To obtain a patent, applicants needed the approval of at least two of the three. Each application was to be accompanied by a miniature representation of the invention.
Later that year, Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia was granted the first U.S. patent under the new law. Hopkins’ invention: an “improvement in the making of Pot Ash by a new apparatus and process.”
More than 200,000 patent models were submitted under the 1790 act, but change was on the horizon. After two fires destroyed a large collection, and facing a shortage of storage space, the patent office discontinued its model requirement in 1880.
Until then, though, model makers were in great demand. Craftsmen like George T. Jacobs were highly regarded as talented model makers. Jacobs employed three to four “skilled workmen … who are kept constantly active. The special character of the work is making models for inventions and certified duplicates of Patent Office models for all purposes.”
In the February 1921 issue of Printer’s Ink Monthly, C.P. Russell described the practice of using “miniature models” as sales aids. His article pointed out that, “The craving to touch is very strongly rooted in human nature.” The salesman’s sample, which put a product in a potential buyer’s hands, was a powerful tool.
“The salesmen were suspicious in the beginning,” Russell wrote. “They were not sure they wanted to carry a ‘toy’ around with them. They felt it might be silly. One by one they were prevailed on to give it a tryout. They let the model do the heavy work of introducing, demonstrating and convincing, reserving themselves for the really important work of closing the order and getting it signed.”
Salesman’s samples were still used into the 1940s and 1950s. Items created in small sizes ranged from farm implements to denim work pants, furniture to soft drink coolers.
Although some pieces bear a specific manufacturer’s name, or are packaged in a carrying case bearing the manufacturer’s name, it can be difficult to definitively prove that any given item is in fact a salesman’s sample. Today, depending on the condition and rarity, farm-related salesman’s samples and patent models have been known to sell for more than $10,000.
For more information: Ervin Chupp, E&S Sales Bulk Foods, 1265 IN-5, Shipshewana, IN 46565.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.