Handmade horse-drawn implements and toy equipment bring horse-drawn farming to life
John Klaassen with his horse-drawn, 2-bottom plow.
John M. Klaassen grew up at the end of the horse-farming era. He not only saw how his parents dealt with it, but got involved himself.
“The toy equipment I make is the same equipment we used on our farms,” he says. “The cultivator or disc, the plow and hay loader, the side-delivery rake, all were practical on the farm I grew up on. I got just old enough to barely get in on some of the horse work. I never actually plowed with five horses on a plow, but I remember my dad and hired help used horses for plowing. Mostly what I did with horses was rake and mow hay. I mowed a lot of acres of hay because I was too young to drive the hay loader or pitch the hay.”
But what really solidified his love for horses was a Christmas gift. “When I was 6,” he recalls, “I got my first Shetland pony, a small black colt.” At the same time, John’s mother began making harness for the plastic, toy horses she’d bought him. “We didn’t have toys like kids do now,” he says. “We used 1- or 2-pound cheese boxes for wagons and things like that. I always had a love for horses, and I still do.”
That’s evident in the horse-drawn implements and harness John has made. He began after seeing another craftsman’s work. When that man retired and sold out, John bought some of his equipment and material.
Leather, though, remained a very expensive component – until he came up with the idea to recycle used leather purses. “I buy them for 50 cents and take them apart,” he says. “They are very well made. It takes me two days to dismantle one.” Harness reins are too small and delicate to be cut from the purses, so he orders those from Tandy Leather Co.
John’s first models were hay wagons. “I bought the wheels, but everything else I made myself,” he says, “the running gears and the hayrack box. I was familiar with the equipment, so I knew what it should look like. I usually use wood from peach boxes, and bought light-weight wood that I carved or cut up. The most challenging part is being precise and accurate. You don’t want to be careless with it, so you make it as close to real as your imagination will let you go.”
The size of the model hayracks depended on the size of the model horses that would pull them, he says. “If you don’t make the hayracks in the same proportion, they don’t look real,” John notes. Several of his hayracks are 1:12 scale; they measure 14 inches long and 4 inches tall.
John’s projects help people understand early farm practices. Hauling hay for his family’s Guernsey milk cows, for instance, was plain old hard work. One item that made it a little easier was a hay sling consisting of two ropes, each with a hook on the end. The ropes were laid across the rack, with hay piled on top until the wagon was half full. Two more ropes were laid across the piled hay and the wagon was filled.
At the barn, the hooks were fastened to the hay carrier and half of the load was pulled up and to the far end of the barn, where a rope on the hay carrier was tripped, dumping the hay. “One end of the hay sling ropes remained attached to the hay carrier so they could be pulled out of the barn and you could go back for another load,” John recalls. “Getting hay up into the hayloft like this was a great convenience.”
If a barn wasn’t equipped with hay tracks or hay slings, a pitchfork was used to pitch hay up into a small door in the barn. From there, the hay was carried by hand to the far end of the barn, difficult work, John says. “With the hay slings,” he says, “you could haul up half a hayrack at a time.”
Sometimes John creates part of an implement, then farms out the rest of the work, as with his red 2-bottom gang plow. “I bought some single-bottom plows from a fellow from Redfield, S.D.,” he says. “When I saw how accurate he made them, I had him finish the plow and moldboard to make it more real. He did a better job than I could.”
The same man made John’s side-delivery hay rake. “A genuine horse side-delivery rake had only three bars in it, which made it jerky,” he says. “When I drove them in the field, even though they did a good job, I didn’t like them because they were so jerky. When tractor side-delivery rakes came out they had four bars, which were much smoother. So I had my horse-drawn model made with four bars to make it look nicer. If it was real, it would do a better job than the three-bar would.”
An old-time hay loader is another sentimental favorite. “In the old days you made a windrow with the side-delivery rake,” he says, “and followed it with a hayrack, and a hay loader hitched behind the hayrack.”
A turning drum in the hay loader picked up the windrow. Bars moving it back and forth and up and down pushed the hay up the slanting frame (later, metal) until the hay dropped over the edge into the hayrack. Workers pitched the hay to the front, building the stack higher and higher until the wagon was full. “It was very nice equipment, and saved a lot of muscle work,” John says. “All you had to do was spread it out on the hayrack.”
With his model, he said, the difficult part was getting everything in the right proportion, with the timing right so the hay would come up to the top and plunge over the edge into the rack. “But it all came from experience,” John says. “You know what ratio you have to have. You know what it takes to make sure it functions properly.”
After each model is finished, John adds the items needed for horses to pull the machines. “You don’t do that in a hurry,” he says. “I had to do some, then walk away, come back and do some more. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of time and a lot of coffee, too,” he adds with a chuckle.
Though John doesn’t want to sell his implements, he was forced to part with some after his wife died and he moved from the family home to a much smaller space. He keeps several – like the horses with the side-delivery rake and the gang plow with five horses – in his apartment in Mountain Lake, Minn. “I used to have them all on a 16-inch-wide board in the basement of our house, so I could go down and look at them any time I wanted, but not any more.”
John has ample opportunity to sell his creations when he exhibits them, but he has no desire to. “I like to see people marvel at how things were done in the years past,” he says. “I’m one of the last of that generation that still worked with horses, and younger generations simply don’t know how horses were able to work. But when they see in miniature how they are hitched up, they can see what it was really like, and it gives them a lot of background information about how our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did things.”
With that in mind, he has a project lined up for the 2012 Butterfield (Minn.) Thresherman’s Assn. Steam and Gas Engine show. “A grain binder would be interesting,” he says. “A lot of people wouldn’t know how to use the binder to cut grain and make bundles before the self-propelled swather came in.”
The binder would require four horses, a daunting prospect in that the Breyer horses John favors are no longer being made. “The demand for Belgian draft horses isn’t there,” he says, “because everyone wants riding or jumping or race horses, and that puts a handicap on my hobby.” He’s hoping he can find stray Breyer horses for sale. “Sometimes people are getting out of the hobby,” he says, “and they might have some horses they would be glad to get rid of.”
“I get a big satisfaction out of being able to show and display the implements and horse harnesses, to show how they used to do the work, plowing, discing, cultivating corn,” he says. “Locally you never see that any more, so that gives people a little review of what it used to be like. Our forefathers all farmed in that way years back.” FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com.