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.

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.”