Growing up, Calvin Elder was taught the benefit of taking care of what you have. That early lesson resurfaced in Calvin's adult years, when he decided to collect farm toys. Because he didn't want to pay high prices for restored toys, Calvin decided to try his hand at fixing up rough ones that could be bought for a song (back then). He learned the ropes of restoration from a friend.
"I have been collecting toys for about 15 years," he said. "When I started, I only bought junk. When I restored what I could afford, I had a variety."
Calvin's first toy was a John Deere 630 he received as a kid.
"Santa brought me this, but I don't know why," he said. "We never had a lick of John Deere on the farm. I collect mostly IH: 'Better red then dead!'"
Through the years, Calvin held onto the 630 and other toys from his childhood, adding to his collection as the years went by.
Today, that collection has taken over one room of the two-story farmhouse in Mt. Auburn, Ill., where he, his wife and daughter live. Display cases – so full they would sag if any more toys were added – were made by a friend, Jim Smith. Two sides of the floor-to-ceiling museum are packed almost exclusively with International Harvester toys. The other section is a combination of Deere, Allis and construction toys. Trucks and signs and other display items also add to the farm toy exhibit.
Among the treasures is a Caterpillar DW 15 Scraper Bowl that Calvin's Dad gave him. Another of his favorites is a Farmall pedal tractor he had as a kid.
"I got it when I wasn't old enough to drive it," he recalled. "I got sidetracked one year, and restored it when I did 26 pedals. I thought 'I did all these, and none of them are mine.' When I got ready to paint it, I looked at the decals. I had ordered decals back in 1985. It had been torn apart for 10 years."
A self-propelled Ruehl combine also dates from Calvin's childhood. It shows his skill in customizing toys: He formatted a couple of pieces for the Ruehl.
Calvin's toy making goes in cycles. During the day, he works at Zexel (a manufacturer of automotive air conditioner components in Decatur, Ill.). At night, he works on toys. Winter and summer are his busiest seasons. During the spring and fall, he farms with his dad and brother, R.D.
"Just when I'm getting tired of it and burn out," he said, "then I get in the fields."
Every inch of space in Calvin's basement shop is taken up with a restoration in progress. His interest, clearly, is in the project at hand.
"It's about production," he said, "not cleanliness!"
Though he jokes about the controlled chaos, he knows where every item is. Tools, paint and supplies are all stored close at hand. While the workshop may look disorganized to the casual observer, it actually is carefully organized for Calvin's needs.
"I have seven drills, each used with a different size bit," he said. "You'd be surprised how much time you lose changing drill bits."
Calvin even has a paint booth in his shop. He hangs parts to dry (he uses a hardener in his paint). He uses a small gun that looks like a hose nozzle to paint the toys. Because each restoration project is unique, predicting completion time is a guessing game.
"It is hard to compare apples to oranges," he said. "If I pick up a toy in winter at a show, I try to do it by the next show. Although I try to do 'first one in, first one out', it doesn't always work that way. One reason is, I hate to mix paint to paint just one tractor."
Yet each tractor that Calvin customizes is unique.
"I never build a tractor the same way," he said.
Besides the toys, Calvin also has a few big ones for shows and such. Among them: A restored 1939 F14 McCormick Deering Calvin had played on as a boy.
"This tractor hadn't run in 40 years," he said.
Tires were needed to finish off the project. Calvin knew that Dick Hitchens, an engineer he worked with at Zexel, had the tires he needed.
"I asked him what he wanted and he said, 'What'll you give me?'"
Calvin said that this drama went on between the two of them all summer, until Dick asked Calvin about restoring some toys for him. Those were the magic words. Calvin told Dick he would trade the toy restorations for the tractor tires.
"He had the tractor tires loaded up the next morning," Calvin added with a smile.
Besides the F14, Calvin also has a Super MTA diesel, an "M" and "H" Farmall waiting to be restored. But they may have to wait. Late this winter, when you are out and about at a toy show, Calvin Elder will be there. If he is not working at a booth, he will be traveling from room to room checking out bargains to be had, parts to be bought, and toys to be restored or customized. Toy shows these days are not just for kids: For fans and collectors like Calvin, the shows bring out the boy in the man, and offers a chance for a little fun. A little fun with some historic preservation, that's what makes the toy collecting wheel go 'round! FC
For more information: Calvin Elder, 1875 E. 2975 N. Rd., ML Auburn, IL 62547; (217) 668-2436.
Cindy Ladage is a freelance writer based in Virden, IL.