While attending a farm auction, perhaps you've wondered what attracts serious buyers to any particular box of items. Sometimes it's a single item, but sometimes it may be a stack of old magazines, newspapers, books, manuals, calendars and the like.
Serious buyers of those collectibles are after what are called "paper items" or just plain "paper." They know that such treasures are full of farm history and know how.
Wally Miller, Creston, Iowa, collects old farm-related paper. Wally – who was raised on a farm, and has worked for an implement dealer – first started collecting machinery-related belt buckles and literature. Now, when not delivering the mail, he attends swap meets, toy shows and steam shows, looking for paper items to buy or trade for.
Anything is of interest to Wally, from old ads to machinery manuals to fliers. The personal contact is a bonus.
"It's fun meeting other people with similar interests," he says. "Every area's a little different, and we discuss paper from things like machinery used for crops. The related crops can be anything from corn to cotton."
Paper collectibles are not only a good investment, they're good teachers.
"Old paper often contains pictures and stories on how early tractors, garden tractors, implements and the like were used and designed," he says. "Farming has changed so much and so fast that even material from the 1950s and '60s is interesting. That includes how people dressed, and (editors') attempts to include people of different nationalities. Paper from that era can remind you of when you were a kid, and what your father operated and owned."
Some literature is useful to those restoring equipment, while other pieces are simply collectible because of their artistry.
"The color sales brochures that machinery dealers had in their showrooms are excellent descriptions of their equipment, including little-known short-line implement companies down to garden tractors," Wally adds. "I especially like some of the older literature from back into the late 1800s, which has color and designs that are works of art. Even some of the early operating manuals, like ones that showed how to operate multi-grade fuel tractors, are very ornate."
Clarence Goodburn, Madelia, Minn., collects and deals by mail in agricultural paper items. He likes collecting tractor and implement sales literature, although anything in print is of interest to him. A special favorite? Anything on less common machinery.
"I recently found a piece of Massey-Ferguson self-propelled sweet corn harvester sales literature," he says, "which I put into my own collection."
Nostalgia plays a key role for many folks.
"For many of today's collectors, they like what they grew up with," Clarence says. "Usually the bigger the tractor or implement, the better."
Clarence admits to some interesting and unusual finds.
"Much farming history is contained in USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Ag Bulletins," he says, "many of which have been destroyed and are no longer stocked by the government. They cover things like how to raise livestock, how to plow, and planning farmsteads. Extension agents and ag teachers used them, and some are still found at farm auctions."
"College texts contain similar information, and usually contain historical pictures, such as farmers and their machinery in action," he says. "Then there are the older farm magazines, like Farm Mechanics, not just well known ones like Farm Journal."
The USDA also produced The Yearbook of Agriculture, which sums up the prior year's U.S. agricultural production, marketing and other activities. No longer in production, older copies of the yearbooks have sold for up to $25 each.
The yearbooks gave a frank and detailed appraisal of agriculture, on everything from development of more efficient machinery to Dust Bowl/drought conditions of the 1930s.
Such collectibles can pop up in unexpected places. While leafing through a collection of LIFE magazines in a booth at an Iowa antique mall, one collector stumbled onto a cover photo of a woman standing in a cornfield, arms full of ear corn. The accompanying article, dated Sept. 27, 1943, focused on the "Women's Land Army." (read more about the Women's Land Army) The woman shown on the cover accompanied a group of schoolgirls from Duluth, Minn., who went to work pciking sweet corn to aid in wartime food production.
Other LIFE photos and stories illustrated the ways in which women pitched in during the war years: everything from women driving tractors, to serving as WACs (Women's Army Corps). The industrial influence on agriculture is also featured: a photograph with another article shows a farmer sifting soil through his fingers as he stands by a horsedrawn plow. He held a second job, he said, at a nearby Rever Copper and Brass plant.
A full-page ad in that issue is titled "America's Meat Front," and spotlights issues surrounding use of meat in the household, and for service personnel in the war effort. The housewife, the meat man, the meat packer and the farmer are prominently featured.
Even the venerable National Geographic is a good source of farm paper collectibles. Issues from World War I present domestic agriculture updates, complete with top-notch photography.
And don't overlook old newspapers. A nearly 60-year-old issue of a country weekly from Missouri contains a feature on a rural mail carrier who used a Model A Farmall to deliver mail in the winter. The carrier equipped the "small but reliable" tractor with a plywood cab and chains (when necessary) to travel otherwise impassable roads. Using just three gallons of gas a day, he never missed a day's delivery on his 53-mile route.
Be sure to delve in to the old newspapers. Gems like this one (in a 1938 issue's "Sixty Years Ago" column) are typical in the papers' "old time news" sections:
"The Largest Plow Ever Built: constructed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company, to be used in ditching for railway construction in Iowa. It will be drawn by a locomotive ..."
That plow, now on display in Brownville, Neb., was last used by Brownville-area farmer Max Peel. He has a photograph of the plow turning under sand, driftwood and willow sprouts on Missouri River bottomland. It was pulled by a big Caterpillar crawler and a four-wheel drive farm tractor linked together.
The original story noted that the plowshare weighed 382 pounds, the beam, 600 pounds; the clevis, 60 pounds; and the standard, 134 pounds. The beam was 16.5 feet long, 10 inches wide, and 17 inches thick. "The moldboard will cut a furrow 37 inches wide," the article stated.
Detailed accounts like that are the paper collector's reward. Though perishable and hard to keep in good condition, paper items can still be found just about everywhere. They're worth buying, both for their collectibility and informative historical content.
For more information: Clarence L. Goodburn, 101 W. Main St., Madelia, MN, 56062-1439; phone (507) 642-8481; fax (507) 642-3281.
Farm Machinery Advertising Collectors, David Schnakenberg, 10108 Tamarack Drive, Vienna, VA 22182. Online at http://www.farmmachineryadvertise.com.
Paper Collectors' Marketplace, 470 N. Main St., Scandinavia, WI 54977-0128; phone (715) 467-2379.
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.