How Farm Toys Transformed into Collectible Treasures

Modern day makeover: Part 1 of 2

| June 2009

  • Arcade Caterpillar
    Link chains make this Arcade Caterpillar look realistic.
  • Arcade Fordsons
    Some Arcade Fordsons are colorful, with red wheels and drivers in blue. Note the different rear wheels on these toys.
  • Arcade McCormick-Deering 10
    This Arcade McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor, which dates to about 1925, also came in gray.
  • Arcade Farmall Regular
    This Arcade McCormick-Deering Farmall Regular is one of the hardest Arcade farm toys to find.
  • Hubley Oliver 70
    As a child, Jim Goke found this Hubley Oliver 70 orchard tractor so ugly that he wouldn't play with it. This Hubley tractor with slant fenders was made in 1/25 scale in the late 1930s.
  • Arcade toy McCormick-Deering thresher ad
    A beautifully colorful catalog illustration for Arcade's McCormick-Deering thresher.
  • Hubley Huber road roller
    The Hubley Huber road roller reflects an era when it was largely up to farmers to build and maintain their own roads.
  • Salesman sample mower
    Salesman's samples included working models of mowers like this one. The manufacturer of such pieces is not always known.
  • set of Vindex Case toys
    A rare set of Vindex Case toys in mint condition. A Case Model L tractor pulls a spreader, with a hay loaders and combine at back. (The Case Eagle is not a Vindex piece.)
  • Vindex John Deere stationary gas engine
    The Vindex John Deere stationary gasoline engine was a first; no other stationary gas engine farm toys were made before this one.
  • Kansas City Toy and Novelty Co. John Deere Model D
    The only known farm toy made of lead, this John Deere Model D was manufactured by Kansas City Toy & Novelty Co. in 1930.
  • Hubley Avery tractor and original box
    This box — perhaps the earliest surviving farm toy box — was mailed from Peoria, Ill., to New York in 1919 with a Hubley Avery 18-36 cast iron tractor inside. "In 30 years of going to major farm toy shows," says Dave Nolt, Paradise, Pa., "I don't know of an older box that that one."
    Courtesy Dave Nolt
  • Sears 1923 farm toy ad
    Sears, Roebuck & Co. advertised this farm toy in company catalogs in 1923.

  • Arcade Caterpillar
  • Arcade Fordsons
  • Arcade McCormick-Deering 10
  • Arcade Farmall Regular
  • Hubley Oliver 70
  • Arcade toy McCormick-Deering thresher ad
  • Hubley Huber road roller
  • Salesman sample mower
  • set of Vindex Case toys
  • Vindex John Deere stationary gas engine
  • Kansas City Toy and Novelty Co. John Deere Model D
  • Hubley Avery tractor and original box
  • Sears 1923 farm toy ad

Few would have predicted the meteoric rise of the farm toy.

A latecomer to the market, the early farm toy was a simple, generic plaything produced in numbers so small that it barely occupied a niche of the toy category. But the evolution of the farm tractor changed everything. Manufacturers discovered demand for well-made, realistic, branded farm toys was every bit as strong as the market for full-size tractors – setting the stage for the transformation from toy to treasure.

The first known farm toys were a small cart and plow created for the children of England’s King Edward I late in the 13th century. For the next 500 years, farms toys continued to be handmade, of corn husks, scrap wood, empty thread spools, old spoons, spare metal, wood knots and thread (for horse reins) – in short, whatever was available.

Commercial farm toys did not appear until the 1880s, when the Wilkins Toy Co., Keene, N.H., offered a cast iron horse-drawn hay tedder. The tedder was soon followed by three other pieces: the Wilkins plow, mower and dump rake (listed here in the order of most to least difficult to find today).

Ray Lacktorin, Stillwater, Minn., collected all four Wilkins pieces. “After my first farm toy show in 1970 in St. Charles, Ill., I heard guys talking about farm toys I had never heard of,” he recalls. “Somebody had copies of an original Wilkins catalog, and when I saw the toys, I said, ‘Those I’m going to try to own.’ It took me a long time to do it, but I have all four pieces.”

Market slow to develop

Curiously enough, after the Wilkins release, outside of the occasional farm set of barns and animals, no farm toys were manufactured for the next 20 years, despite the proliferation of toys in every other category: stationary steam engines, dolls, train sets, fire engines, balls, banks, boats and ships. It seems odd, especially considering the high percentage of people working the land in that era.

Even the invention of the tractor sometime in the 1890s didn’t spur manufacture or corresponding toys. Tons of carriages, musical horns, performing clowns, frogs, ducks and the like continued to populate catalogs. But there were no true farm toys.



As the years passed, seemingly every other aspect of American vehicle life and culture was touched by commercial toy manufacture. Companies sold child-size automobiles, fire trucks, delivery trucks, ice wagons, trains, velocipedes and more. But no farm toys.

Homespun wonders

The children of farmers, though, were making do. Money was hard to come by in the 1920s and the Depression years of the ’30s, and many children learned to improvise.

Richard Birklid, Nome, N.D., said he made his own toy swathers, binders and plows when he was growing up. “I made them out of wood and whatever I could find around the place,” he recalls. “Old used tablespoons – I had six or eight of them as plow bottoms.” The swather was pretty complicated, he remembers, with a wheel to drive it, a belt turning the canvas around, nails in the wheel as cleats to make it turn, and two blades underneath that piled up dirt and made it look like a swath after the toy swather had passed. “Kids just didn’t have money to buy toys in those days,” Richard says, “so we made our own.”



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