Farm Memorabilia Worth the Wait

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Pieces in Loyd Davis' collection include an early John Deere paperweight. "Part of its rack is broken off," he said. "Pieces like this are pretty vulnerable. It's hard to find one that's not busted up." 
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Part of Loyd's collection of stick pins. Loyd is wart of restoration. When he adds a piece to his collection, "I just dust it off, clean it up. Lots of times, you go to make something better, you end up making it worse. Lots of times, after I get a new piece home, I just let it set for one or two years," he said. "You've got to be careful not to rub off the finish. Don't use steel wool or anything abrasive. And be careful with what you put on an antique. These new chemicals can have unpredictable results on old things. Whatever you do, do it cautiously."
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Pieces like these celebrate the early days of industry and agriculture in the U.S. Some forms – the frog, for instance – were adopted for use by many firms.

If your hobby must deliver instant gratification, then stay away from farm memorabilia. Stick pins, watch fobs, paperweights and the like don’t come along every day, and in some parts of the country, they don’t come along at all. But if you treasure history, creativity and the patina of age, you won’t mind the wait.

Kansas City-area collector Loyd Davis knows all about waiting.

“It’s taken me 35 years to accumulate my collection,” he said. “It’s tough to find this stuff. You may walk through 15 antique stores and not find a thing.”

His collection of farm memorabilia began, simply enough, with watch fobs.

“But along the way, I started seeing other stuff,” he said. “Like advertising stick pins. They’re scarce, but still easier to find than fobs. There’s some that are real common. The Moline Flying Dutchman, the Moline Plow Co. manufactured jillions of those. And the J.I. Case eagle, that’s fairly common. Those were huge companies; they cranked out a lot of them. Then there were the paperweights …”

He likes the history behind the pieces, the geographic ties to his roots in farm country, and the size of the collectibles.

“One of the reasons I like farm memorabilia,” he said, “is that those things don’t take up any room.”

Room is of paramount importance to a man who “collects actively in a dozen areas,” including (but not limited to) antique phonographs and fans (electric and pre-electric), and political buttons. His collection is already spread out in storage facilities in three separate communities, to the tune of more than $400 a month.

“I’ve started running out of room,” he admitted.

A collection of memorabilia is more quietly understated than, say, a collection of gas engines or tractors or cast iron seats. It speaks of corporate identity rather than a standout model, of an era rather than a year. Loyd’s collection, for instance, includes a running deer figurine from Deere and Co., a Dempster frog, a Rumely Oil Pull, and a lion emblematic of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad’s founding.

The Deere piece is particularly rare.

“I know guys who collect John Deere,” he said, “and they’ve never even seen one of these.”

The ATSF lion – which is something like 135 years old – is equally obscure. Even those long familiar with the railway may not understand the lion paperweight’s significance.

“When the ATSF was founded, part of the money came from the Bank of England,” Loyd said. “The cast iron lion paperweight was a symbol of that. It would have been given to ticket agents and freight clerks for use on their desks.”

He muses about the comings and goings in an early railway station, the cast iron lion bearing mute witness. Paperweights, manufactured primarily between the turn of the century and the 1920s, were more than decorative in their day, he noted.

“Back then, there was no central air,” he said. “The windows were open all summer. It was a utilitarian thing. People in those days would have used a bolt, a half a brick, whatever was handy, to keep their papers from blowing all over. Even after electricity came in, they used fans, and the papers were still blowing.”

The trick to such collectibles, he said, is knowing the story behind the name.

“When you go to an estate sale or a flea market, if you see one of these lions, you might not know what it is,” he said. “But all this stuff has a story. To me, that’s a part of the fun of collecting. What kind of story could this thing tell, if it could talk?”

Loyd can deal with the deteriorated condition of the pieces. And he can handle the often fruitless hunts. But if anything about his hobby makes him scowl, it’s the con men.

“Once people become aware of these kinds of things, well, there’s a lot of fakes and frauds now, and a lot of unscrupulous people who’ll try to sell fakes.”

New collectors are the most vulnerable, he said.

“You learn when you’ve been burned a few times,” he said.

Beware of the piece that looks too good to be true, he said. Beware of the piece you think is worth, say, $100, and it’s tagged at something closer to $25. Color can be a good indicator: Cast iron should have a dark rust color about it. Rust tones of yellow or orange are likely the result of chemical treatments applied to reproduction pieces. And look for wear on the base, although that, too, can be faked, Loyd said. Is the paint bright and shining? Be suspicious if it is. A good rule of thumb: get the piece into the sunlight for a close inspection. “That shows a lot,” he said.

Retiredfrom a career as a printer, Loyd now collects full-time. Farm memorabilia is scarce enough that he regularly trolls a variety of sources in his search.

“You’ll find this stuff at flea markets, farm auctions, and from other collectors in unrelated areas,” he said. But you’re best off heading for the hills.

“You don’t find as much of this stuff in the city,” he said. “If you live in a metropolitan area, farm-related advertising material is going to be hard to find.”

Either way, he said, “You’ve got to be real persistent. Sometimes you can go right to it; other times, it might take 10 years to get a piece you want. Every year there’s less and less of this stuff. It seems like the only time I get a new piece is when I get something out of a collection.”

Still, each day has its surprises. “That’s one of the reasons I like this business,” he said. “Every day’s an adventure.” If he was starting over, he said, he’d do one thing differently.

“The biggest single mistake I’ve made is, I should have bought more stuff,” he said. “I should have come up with a way to come up with the money.”

Money, of course, is always the trick. “If you’re going to sneak up on everything, you’re going to build a decent collection,” he said. “But if you want a really fine collection, sometimes you’ve got to bite the bullet. Sometimes I’ve had that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: ‘Oh, man, I paid too much for that …’ But I’ve never been sorry in the end. It isn’t so much about the money: I collect because I like it. It gives me a piece of history.

“This collecting … it’s just a disease some of us are afflicted with,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it: you either like it, or you don’t.” FC

For more information: Loyd Davis, (913) 432-0253.

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