An Iowa man returns to an old hobby of building museum-quality miniature tractors and implements by hand.
Growing up on a farm in the northern Iowa community of Woden, Beryl Buffington learned at an early age how to make his own toys and keep himself entertained.
“I had a little section of ground behind our house that I turned into a play farm,” recalls Beryl, now 75. “I would cut down little twigs and branches and make fence posts and use a piece of wire for the fencing.”
When a neighbor or friend passed along an old toy tractor, Beryl – one of 10 kids in his family – designed a little trailer or wagon to pull behind it using things he found on the farm. “I remember finding a rolled-up piece of tin that looked like a spout on a corn picker,” he says. “I would improvise from there.”
Those toys of his childhood are long gone, but Beryl’s imagination remains as active today as it was years ago. Now retired, in recent years he’s built nearly 200 miniature tractors, farm implements and steam engines that could find a home in any museum.
“You look at things different than other people do,” Beryl says of his hobby. “I’ve always been that way.”
Born in Crystal Lake, Iowa, Beryl spent most of his life in nearby Woden, where he went to high school, married and, with his wife, Sharon, raised two daughters. His first job was working for his father-in-law at the Woden hardware store. He landed the job after his brother-in-law went into the military during the Vietnam era.
“After my brother-in-law returned from the service, a good friend in the lumber business asked me to go to work for him,” Beryl says. He spent 20 years working at Woden Lumber Co., and then managed a lumberyard in Garner, Iowa. After 13 years there, he purchased the Britt lumberyard, a business he owned for 10 years.
In the late 1990s, Beryl rekindled his creative spirit. He started making miniature tractors and other farm implements in his spare time, his first creations since boyhood. “After I bought the lumberyard in Britt, I had time to pursue building the miniatures,” he says. “When I worked for someone else, I didn’t have time.”
In 2007, Beryl sold the business and retired. An auction was held and all the miniatures he had created were sold. Later, Beryl returned to his hobby as a way to keep his mind active. He turned his basement into a workshop and display area and started building miniatures again.
Ten years later, Beryl finds himself in a small world, surrounded by dozens of detailed miniatures, including 125 farm-related pieces. His creations include Waterloo Boy, Oliver, Farmall, Allis-Chalmers, Massey-Harris and Cockshutt tractors. His collection also features several four-wheel-drive articulated dual-wheel tractors, including the Big Bud HN 320, John Deere, Ford and International giants.
His miniature collection even has a custom-built frame with two Farmall H tractors mounted on it. “Farmall didn’t build this dual tractor,” he said. “It’s something a farmer would build for himself.”
The variety of subjects Beryl has tackled is astonishing: a Claas Lexion 730 combine, a New Idea hay loader with horse-drawn wagon, a Kelly-Springfield self-propelled road roller, an International Harvester threshing machine complete with a Hart Cleaner, an Artsway feed grinder and an International haybine that would have been used to rake the hay into rows. He’s also crafted a replica of a dragline crane and various pieces of earthmoving equipment.
One of Beryl’s current projects is a John Deere 3010, a popular row-crop tractor in Deere’s New Generation Series built from 1961-63. “I try to focus on my life span,” he says. “I create things that I would have grown up with or been familiar with.”
Beryl is quick to note that his creations are miniatures, not toys. “I have always been fascinated by miniatures,” he says. “I don’t think of them as toys. They are all built from scrap material.”
Beryl gets ideas for projects from magazines like Farm Collector. Sometimes he’s inspired by something he sees when he’s travelling or doing errands. Sometimes friends suggest a project.
After he settles on a project, Beryl looks for pictures of the piece online. Pictures taken from different angles are a definite plus. “To build a miniature, I need front, back, left and right angles,” he says. “On some implements, I have to get creative where clutches or levers go. It takes a lot of imagination.”
None of his miniatures are scale models. Everything is crafted by proportion. “Once you build a tractor, like a John Deere A,” he explains, “it is close to a Farmall H or some other type of tractor.”
Beryl uses varied materials, primarily plastics. “Some of the plastics come from advertising signage I have had access to from various material suppliers my lumber company did business with,” he says. He also puts slats from vertical window blinds to work. “Most of them are thin, malleable and strong,” he says.
He even uses pieces of siding from construction sites to craft his creations. “Plastics are easier to work with than wood,” he says. The main factor in material selection is the material’s capacity to bond using Super Glue. His glue of choice is Loctite industrial glue.
Beryl is careful to use correct colors, and he uses a computer to produce his own decals. After printing the decals on regular white copy paper, he coats them several times with acrylic spray. “Once the decal dries, it has a nice finish, almost a luminous finish,” Beryl said. “It looks like I bought them at the store.”
Some pieces are complete in several days of work. More complex creations take as long as three weeks. “I have a Gaar-Scott 20-30 steam engine that took two to three weeks to build,” he says. “Some of the simpler miniatures will take a week.”
Beryl does not limit himself to farm implements. After his sister gave him a team of miniature horses formed from cast iron, he built a replica of the Budweiser wagon complete with 60 beer kegs. He’s also crafted a circus train filled with wild animals he’s purchased.
Other projects include miniature airplanes and a pool table complete with pool balls and cues. “The pool table has genuine felt on it,” he says, “and a Budweiser light.” He’s also been inspired by music: He’s built a miniature drum and guitar set, a grand piano, a juke box and horse-drawn sleigh that plays Jingle Bells.
Beryl also enjoys model railroads. He’s created various backgrounds – towns, cities and mountains – for a 400-foot HO-scale model railroad track layout.
None of Beryl’s miniature creations are for sale, and each is special to him. “One day this one is my favorite and the next day it might be another,” he says. “I can tell a story about everything I’ve built.”
But he is happy to show them off. He enjoys giving tours of his miniatures to friends or visitors passing through the area. “People find out about it,” he says. “We’ve had a fair amount of people through. People will see the miniatures and reflect on the old days.”
It’s a hobby he enjoys, and one that he says helps him keep his mind active. “I’m like a dog,” he says. “Once I get hold of a bone, I have to pursue it.” FC
For more information, contact Beryl Buffington at P.O. Box 111, Woden, IA 50484.
Freelance writer J.O. Parker has extensive experience as a community newspaper editor and photographer. He enjoys telling people’s stories through photographs and words, attending steam engine shows and antique collecting with his wife, Debbie. Email him at goodthingsJO@zumatel.net.