Minnesota couple expanded home to create 37-room farm toy museum with 700 1/16 scale toys
It’d be understandable if the sprawl of Greibrok’s Mini History Farm & County Fair Museum, a farm toy museum, generated some confusion. The home-grown attraction has grown like Topsy. But owner Dorothy Greibrok keeps a fairly tight grip on the facts and figures. “We only have 37 rooms, I think it is,” she says.
Dorothy’s late husband, Carlyle, was the driving force behind the museum. His interest in farm toys dated to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when few farm families could afford toys – so he made his own. As a child, he built farm tractors, machinery and other toys out of cardboard. “We took the cardboard off the back of a paper writing tablet, and used maybe a piece of wire, part of a pencil or a Tinkertoy to make the axles,” he said in an interview before his death in 2003. “It wasn’t great, but it killed time during long winter evenings.” He made Fordsons or 10-20 McCormick-Deerings, the tractors most common in his farm neighborhood at the time.
As an adult, Carlyle farmed, following in his father’s footsteps. He enjoyed buying tractors to use on the farm. “You could buy them and use them, and with inflation maybe you could get your money back later, and maybe even make a buck,” he said. His toy collection grew as well. “In the process of buying the tractor,” he explained, “I’d have the dealer give me or one of my boys one of those little ones.”
A confirmed workaholic, Carlyle had little time to devote to toys until a 1982 diagnosis of throat cancer. Reluctant to encounter friends during the time when he was struggling with the disease, he followed solo pursuits, like out-of-the-area farm toy shows. “That was great fun,” he said. “I discovered I could haggle with dealers over the price of the little tractors, cars or airplanes, just as I had with tractors for the farm. That’s half the fun of buying them in the first place. Because I was raised during the Depression when money meant so much, if you can save a buck or make a buck, it’s even more fun.”
The first room
Before long, storage and display became a challenge. Carlyle started thinking about creating a room for his toys in his house. “Our furnace room ceiling was very low so you had to bend over to walk in there,” he said. He cut a trench in the floor, making it easy to walk through the room and see toys displayed on either side.
That was room number one. As the toys continued to pile up (on one occasion, he returned from a Sioux Falls, S.D., show carting 30 toy tractors plus some custom implements), he needed more space.
He appropriated a stall from the garage and enclosed it to make a room. He closed up a 12-foot space between the house and the garage for another room. Then he converted another stall in the garage. “Once we had a five-car garage, but now we’re down to three,” he said with a laugh.
As his collection expanded to more than 700 1/16-scale toys, he needed still more space. “I liked to build,” he explained, “so I’d put in a foundation in the fall so I’d have something to do during the winter.” More rooms appeared, until he had added 13.
Hobby picks up speed
Meanwhile, Carlyle’s collection also grew. He added model trucks, large scale at first but then smaller scale. He used dioramas and layouts to show how old-time farms and businesses operated. Displays began to take over entire rooms.
But the array didn’t become a museum until after the Greibroks hosted church services in their house. When an area congregation took on a building project, the congregation had no place to conduct worship services. The Greibroks allowed the congregation to hold services at their home for four years, from 1987 to 1991. About 150 people showed up each Sunday. While there, they couldn’t help but admire the toys, layouts and special rooms.
In 1991, the building project was completed and the congregation settled into its new church home. Word of mouth, however, is a powerful thing. People kept calling to see the toys, so Carlyle created Greibrok’s Mini History Farm & County Fair Museum that year. Before long, the museum became a stop on tour bus itineraries. Visitors came for a catered meal and toured the museum afterward.
The farm toys
Carlyle’s first toys were models of the tractors he’d used: a Ford-Ferguson, Case DC, Allis-Chalmers WD-45 and D-17, and John Deeres. The only one he couldn’t find at the time was a Massey-Ferguson 1500 tractor.
Later, if the price was right, he bought toys he liked. He added older lines like Huber and Heider, as well as Oliver and Minneapolis-Moline. One of his favorite toys was a Minneapolis-Moline Uni-Harvester. “I bought a real one of those new in 1956,” he recalled. “Before that, my father-in-law had a 2-row, pull-type. He’d come over and pick corn for me, and he went year after year without a breakdown. So I bought this Minneapolis-Moline self-propelled. That was the biggest disaster ever. I just hated that thing. I couldn’t even finish picking corn that fall because it was broke down all the time. I called the dealer and said, ‘You gotta get that thing out of here tomorrow.’ But funny thing, now that toy is one of my favorites.”
Carlyle’s toy Ferguson 20 is similar to the full-size model he bought new in 1951 for $900. “Not many of those big ones were made, so of course not many little ones were either,” he said. “I finally saw one for $450, and bought it. I paid half as much for the toy in 1987 as I did for the real one in 1951.”
Bringing the past to life
Layouts and dioramas at the farm toy museum show how farms and businesses operated in the past. Many recreate scenes from Carlyle’s youth and childhood. One display shows construction toys building a road. “When I was a kid, we had all this big machinery building a road near our place, and I was taken with the big caterpillars and the amount of dirt they could push around,” he said. “So I decided to make a set-up like road building in progress.”
The idea for a truck stop came from one near Dexter, Minn., known for good food. Popular with truckers, it was regularly packed with big rigs. Carlyle’s rendition shows a driver putting gas in his Buick convertible and a tanker unloading gas.
The rising sun in the background is made of a flat hall lamp with a yellow bulb. To make trees, he used clippings from a honeysuckle bush. Pine trees were purchased from a store specializing in Christmas decor; clouds are made of fabric.
Layouts include an implement dealer’s lot, planting and working soybeans, and Carlyle’s favorite, threshing. “I did a lot of that when I was a kid,” he said. “It was hard, heavy work, but I was making 50 cents an hour in 1936 to ’37, which was big money at the time, and you always got good food. Lots of chicken; it was cheap in the ’30s and ’40s.”
Inspiration for the layouts and dioramas came from drives around the countryside, and each display was carefully planned. “I never used a blueprint,” Carlyle said. “It was all settled in my mind before I started.”
Special themed rooms, like the Africa Room and Fantasy Island Room, have their own sound effects and music. The County Fair Room, modeled on the Minnesota State Fair, has actual working models of amusement park rides. Carlyle built each from scratch. In the Doll Room, 150 dolls are displayed.
The best part
In the past 20 years, thousands of people of all ages from all across the U.S. and many foreign countries have visited Greibrok’s Mini History Farm & County Fair Museum. All are enthusiastic about the unusual display, Dorothy says. The County Fair Room is a particular favorite. “They like to look at machinery hill, the parking area for the cars, the grandstand, the double Ferris wheel and things like that,” she says.
Dorothy still gives personal tours. “My boys think I should hang it up,” she says, “because it’s too much work. But when you get to be my age, a lot of older people say that nobody comes to visit them anymore and they get awfully lonely. Not only do I have these people coming to visit, but I meet a lot of interesting people and get to talk to them. That’s the best part of all.” FC
For more information: Greibrok’s Mini History Farm & County Fair Museum, five miles south of Oakland, Minn., on County Road 34; open by appointment; phone (507) 433-4880.
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; e-mail: email@example.com.