Wisconsin man builds impressive pedal tractor and toy collection
Sometimes the sidewalk in front of Elmer Duellman's house looks like a pedal tractor racetrack, with children racing back and forth as fast as their little legs will pump.
"I have eight grandkids," the 62-year-old collector from Fountain City, Wis., says. "They want to go for a ride, so I get the pedal tractors out so they can take them for a little spin. It's like Christmas at my place every day. I just like it. It's fun."
Choosing which tractors to bring out may be difficult, because Elmer has more than 200 pedal tractors - about 130 different models. He stores them anywhere he can, in the garage, an old school bus, a little lean-to and a Quonset hut. It's all part of Elmer's Auto and Toy Museum, which sits at the end of Elmer's Road atop the highest bluff around, overlooking the Mississippi River and Fountain City below.
"If somebody wants to get serious about riding a pedal tractor," Elmer says, "all they have to do is ask me, and I'll go get them one." He's got Allis-Chalmers, Case, Ford, International Harvester, John Deere, Massey-Harris, Oliver and many more miniature versions of the big farm machines. Elmer also has three John Deere Lawn & Garden pedal tractors, but has more International Harvester pedal tractors than any other brand. "Not for any particular reason," he says. "It just happened."
While most pedal tractor owners are children, Elmer was nearly 35 years old when he bought his first collectible piece. Until then, he'd never even seen one. When he found an International M pedal tractor one day, he couldn't pass it up and promptly purchased the foot-powered toy. "After that," Elmer says, "I put up a sign in my salvage business that I was interested in pedal tractors."
One day, a young man spotted the sign and said he knew of a pedal tractor not too far from Elmer's house. "I went to this place - there was supposed to be a farm there, but you couldn't tell because the weeds must have been 10 feet high - and when I got hold of a guy, I said, 'heard you've got a John Deere A pedal tractor?' And he did," Elmer says. "He was the original owner, and he had bought it in 1951. It was all in pieces, so I had to bring it in and put it together."
"I started collecting pedal tractors in 1984," Elmer adds. "My dad had a farm one time, and I used to work on a farm, and I think the pedal tractors are just very unique."
Even though Elmer has his favorites, he doesn't turn up his nose at any pedal tractor he runs across. "I like all the little pedal tractors, the Allis CA, the Case VAC, the little Oliver," Elmer says. "Whenever I take my pedal tractors and put them on display, those are the ones I take. They're so cute."
For many of Elmer's tractors, a duplicate model in unrestored condition sits next to a restored model so people can see the difference. "That wasn't intentional, getting those different ones," he says. "It just happened." Many pedal tractors come in two sizes, a large and a small, and he owns versions of each. "Except for the Fords, they're all big ones."
Unlike some collectors, Elmer doesn't like to restore pedal tractors. He hasn't restored any for about six years, partly because most are in pretty good condition. Elmer says the unrestored ones are worth more than the restored ones. "I think it's better to leave them original, especially now that they are reproducing some of them," Elmer says. "If you can show that it's original, it's worth a lot more money. There are a couple of them that I did restore that I wish I hadn't. Originality is so important, even if they have just 50 percent of the original paint. That means they're child-worn, and that means the kids were having fun with them."
Elmer's such an avid pedal tractor enthusiast, he'll brave blizzards and go the distance to get his next prize. Once, he got a phone call from a man in southern Iowa with a pedal tractor for sale. "I told him I'd be down there at 8 a.m. the next morning." Unfortunately for Elmer, with the dawn also came a blizzard. "I decided to go anyway," Elmer says. "I got down there, and ended up buying it from him, the original owner of an Allis CA pedal tractor."
Elmer is such a unique person and toy collector, his reputation for fairness has spread far and wide. It's no surprise, because he has five Quonset huts filled with thousands of toys, pedal tractors, antique cars and motorcycles. The collections fill his garage, basement and a few old school buses. People are always sending him new finds, and practically every day he gets a new toy in the mail. "Haven't gotten any of the pedal tractors that way, though," he laughs. While toys abound, Elmer even has a full-sized car - a 1929 Model A Phaeton - in his living room.
His impulse to collect sprouted from childhood. "We never had anything when we were kids," Elmer says. "My mother died when she was very young - I was 7 - and there were eight of us. My dad traded our farm products for sugar and butter. We were very poor, so I never had any toys. I got to play with some toys with other kids - we had a doctor who lived across the street from us - but we didn't have anything."
Besides the pedal tractors, Elmer also has many of the items manufactured for them. "I have all the metal trailers that were made - Case, Allis-Chalmers, International, John Deere - pretty well all the wagons sitting there in the barn are all together so people can see them," Elmer says. "I also have the umbrellas, like those for the Case, Allis-Chalmers and a couple of others, too."
People come to Elmer's museum and are always impressed with the pedal tractors, as well as the other toys. Invariably, somebody asks to buy one of his pedal tractors. "I just tell them, 'I don't sell,' but they sure drool over them. I should hand out towels," he laughs.
The proud collector won't sell his pieces, but sometimes will trade duplicates. Recently, he traded three pedal tractors for three scooter-type vehicles, a Harley-Davidson 125 Hummer, a Cushman Scooter, and an Eagle Scooter and Service Cycle. "None of them ran, but I got all of them running now," he says.
Elmer's favorite pedal tractor is probably the John Deere A. "Because that was just the hardest one for me to find," he says. Elmer recently obtained a rare Ford 901 pedal tractor with a trailer that still has its original canvas. "I don't know how close I am to having all of them, because I just haven't kept up on it," he explains. He also has an open-grille Oliver 88 pedal tractor. "I had never had that one before, and I had to pay quite a bit to get it, but I thought it was a fair price," Elmer adds. "If it's fair to both of us, that's the key." Elmer likes them all, but he prefers die cast pedal tractors more than those crafted from tin. "They (tin pedal tractors) don't really look like the tractor they're supposed to represent." Elmer does have a few tin models, most notably the Minneapolis-Moline Tot and Shuttle-Shift.
Elmer started collecting toys of all kinds because of his car collection. Car clubs came from far and wide to see his vehicles. "When they'd come, I'd put out a few toys I'd bought cheap at auction sales, and people liked them as well as the big cars," he says. "After that, people told other people who told people, and they'd come. I needed a place for all the toys I was cramming into my basement, so I kept getting more and more buildings, and pretty soon I had a museum." Most of Elmer's pedal tractors come from sources far from his Wisconsin home, including New York, Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and many other states.
Elmer's museum even attracts people from around the world. He's had visitors from Australia, Holland, Germany and even South Africa. "A banker from South Africa called my wife a couple of times, and finally he said he was going to fly over here just to see my collection," Elmer says. "He has more than a 100 pedal vehicles, so now I can say the furthest anybody ever came to see my pedal vehicles was from South Africa. When he signed the visitor's log he wrote, 'I flew halfway around the world to see this, and it was well worth it.''' FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 2535414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elmer's Auto and Toy Museum is open two weekends a month from May through October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children. "Nobody's ever asked for their money back," Elmer says. "A lot of people say we should charge more." Elmer suggests visitors should call for a schedule: (608) 687-7221.