New Materials, Technology Revive Farm Toy Hobby

Modern day makeover: Part 2 of 2

| July 2009

Fred Ertl Sr. is considered the father of the modern farm toy hobby – but that parenthood happened by accident.

During a 1945 strike, Ertl was laid off from his job as molder at a Dubuque, Iowa, foundry. With a wife and five children to support, he desperately needed a job. What he got was that and more, when the entire farm toy hobby fell into his lap.

It began with Fred Ertl’s son’s cast iron Arcade John Deere Model A toy tractor. When Joe broke the piece, it was up to Dad to fix it. After a bit of tinkering, Ertl figured the toy was not repairable. Instead, he decided to make his son a reproduction of the Model A.

Ertl enjoyed the process, and wondered if he could make toys to sell. That would help bring in some income until the strike ended. So, he created sand molds of three Arcade farm toys. Using his home furnace, he melted aluminum and poured the molten metal into sand molds of a trio of Arcade farm toys: a John Deere A, Allis-Chalmers WC and International Harvester H. After the metal poured into the molds cooled and set, Ertl’s children assembled the pieces into tractors, and his wife painted them.

Metal makes the difference

The concept wasn’t unique, but the metal Ertl used was. Up to that time, farm toys were almost exclusively made of cast iron. However, World War II-era restrictions limited the availability of iron for civilian purposes.

But even if iron had been available, Ertl probably wouldn’t have used it. The melting point of iron is 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit; aluminum’s is less than half that at 1,220 degrees Fahrenheit. He would have known that coal-based fires generate temperatures of 1,160 to 1,880 degrees Fahrenheit. That meant he could melt aluminum in his home furnace, but not iron.

As luck would have it, one of Ertl’s neighbors was a buyer for Roshek’s Department Store in Dubuque. When he saw Ertl’s reproduction tractors, he said he would take all Ertl could make, giving birth to a farm toy empire.

Fred Ertl Sr. took to the road to sell his toys. Customers were impressed by the high degree of workmanship. Ertl contacted nearby implement dealers in Dyersville, Winthrop and Cascade for promotions, and met with nothing but success. Dealers and customers alike loved the toys, and Ertl had found his life’s work. 

Spreading the base

Late in 1945, with the toy business going strong, Ertl realized he needed help selling his products. His son, Fred Ertl Jr., traces the transition. “My father met Eldon ‘Bud’ Essman and Lavern D. Kascel, and made an arrangement with them in 1946, whereby they would attempt to sell products with Deere and other logos to what are known today as OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers),” he explains. “This they accomplished. They started Eska in 1946 and were the middleman in selling Ertl products to Deere and later other OEMs.”

The Eska name came from the first two letters of Essman’s and Kascel’s last names. The agreement stipulated that Eska could eventually manufacture farm implements, but not tractors. Ertl retained control over tractor manufacture.