When Thomas Peters left his farm near Orion, Ill., in the early 1970s, he never thought that he would miss the country life. He spent the next two decades running small businesses and renting his farmland. During that time, Tom also met and married his wife, Betty, and bought a house in Orion, where they've now lived for decades.
As life slowed down for Tom in the mid-1990s, 'There was a void from being off the farm that needed to be filled,' he says. Like other former farmers, he began collecting toys as a way to keep his farm memories alive.
He also took an active role in improving his farmland. By changing tenants and practices, Tom says proudly, one of his farms is now host to regional water quality and erosion prevention demonstrations. 'When I looked over the place, there were gullies that would swallow your pickup,' Tom explains. 'Now I see settlement dams, grass waterways, concrete block spillways and buffer strips - it makes me feel good.'
Tom's careful stewardship of the land obviously carries over to the meticulous nature of his toy collecting - although he admits that toys can't easily fill the void left by leaving the farm.
As a toy collector, Tom seeks out tractors that personally interest him, such as the International Harvester Co.'s Farmall Cub. In fact, his first complete toy series was composed of all seven versions of the Cub tractor that ERTL produced. Yet, one toy collecting challenge, Tom says, is finding all variants made of a particular model. 'There are 15 or so variants of the ERTL John Deere Model 3040 from the 1960s according to my books,' Tom adds. 'I have 13 of them.'
Differences between each variant are often as subtle as the length of oil filters and numbers cast into the piece, or a different number of levers cast into the operator's station. More-obvious differences can include narrow front instead of wide front wheel configurations, but those are the easy variants to spot. Still others are built with three-point hitches, while some aren't, and a few models have cast wheels and others sport the plastic variety. With such a myriad of models to choose from, collectors could spend years amassing a complete collection. Tom's dedication to collecting variants is evident in one of his favorite models: the IH Farmall 560, of which he has more than 12 variations.
Tom also collects commemorative-series tractors. He owns the National Farm Toy Show models from each year between 1984-2002, and plans to buy the 2003 commemorative piece from that show when it's available. The Summer Toy Festival held each year in Dyersville, Iowa, offers another commemorative series that Tom collects, as well as a similar toy series from the annual Red Power Roundup.
An interesting part of collecting commemorative toys is that manufacturers submit potential commemorative models to show organizers before each show, many of which will never receive the commemorative designation. As a result, many companies manufacture a short run of those models, so it's possible to collect the 'official' commemorative as well as the 'unofficial' versions for any given year. For example, Tom owns the Case JLE (really a toy version of the Model VAC) that was submitted but wasn't selected as the commemorative piece at the 1986 Summer Toy Festival. That year an Oliver model tractor was actually chosen to commemorate the show. The designation 'JLE' stands for Joseph L. Ertl, who was in competition with his brother, the owner of the ERTL Toy Co.
Not all of Tom's tractors were purchased in good condition. In fact, Tom finds great joy in restoring farm toys. Judging from his work, Tom's an excellent painter with an eye for placing minute decals just right. He likes the challenge, although he pointed to some decals yet to be installed and explains that, 'At this point, with the arthritis in my right hand, the decals aren't easy.' Tom doesn't just specialize in delicate decal application. He also makes substantial repairs to broken models, everything from replacing drawbars to adding steering wheels or front axles. Tom's collection also includes several original-condition models, which he leaves unrestored because they reflect original paint colors, decal styles and equipment arrangements from each toy. In some cases, Tom even customizes toy tractors and implements. He's modified a Tru-Scale two-row corn picker designed for the John Deere 60 Series models to fit his Farmall M model, and he's done similar things with loaders.
Tom's techniques are high-tech. He tracks his collection with meticulous records for each toy on a computer spreadsheet. That way he knows when, where and in what condition each toy was obtained, what he paid for it and the modifications - if any - made to each. 'There is a downside to the record keeping,' Tom explains. 'Particularly when you compare what you paid to its current value.' The toy market has faced a recession in the past few years, he says, with values dropping substantially. 'ERTL's decision to start making discontinued models again hasn't helped matters,' he adds. 'But then you don't collect toy tractors for the money.'
Not all of Tom's tractors are made by ERTL. Several plastic models manufactured by Yoder, a now-defunct business formerly based in Paris, Ind., are also in his collection. He has toys made by JLE, Specast, ERTL Precision, and Tru-Scale, in addition to a handful of customized pieces. Although not particularly valuable, one of Tom's favorite toy sets is a pair of limited-edition, cast iron Rock Island Plow Co. Heider tractor models. They were made by Specast and represent Heider Models C and D. Each toy carries the production number 379 out of a total of 1,500 made.
Toy collecting was only the start of the former farmer's collections, and now he's equally interested in those diminutive, but ever-so-real IH Cub Cadet tractors. 'I got tired of having to play on my hands and knees, and so I moved on to the next step,' Tom says.
He began collecting Cub Cadets about three years ago and currently owns eight of them, along with a nice variety of implements. Tom shows three of his Cub Cadets and uses others to trim the grass around the buildings at his farm, push snow and work the garden.
After years of toy collecting, Tom is considering adding a full-sized IH Cub to his collection. 'It would sure make the mowing out at the farm a lot easier,' he jokes. Strangely enough, toy collecting has led Tom back to the farm after all these years.
- Tom Peters can be reached by mail at 1313 11th St., Orion, IL 61273; (309) 526-8362; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Oscar 'Hank' Will III is an old-iron collector and restorer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Whittier, Calif, and his farm in East Andover, N.H., and writes about the machines and people he meets in between. Write him at 13952 Summit Drive, Whittier, CA 90602; or call (562) 696-4024; or e-mail: email@example.com