New Materials, Technology Revive Farm Toy Hobby

Modern day makeover: Part 2 of 2

| July 2009

  • John Deere Model A toy tractor made by Fred Ertl Sr.
    When Fred Ertl Sr. made this John Deere Model A as one of his first tractors, he single-handedly started the farm toy revolution. Note the aluminum wheels on this very rare piece.
    Bill Vossler
  • Minneapolis-Moline R toy tractor
    The operator’s flat hat is the tip-off that that this is the very rare and valuable Minneapolis-Moline R. Even in this beat-up condition, it could be worth as much as $1,500. Made by Slik in 1950, the piece is sometimes referred to as a “Z.”
    Bill Vossler
  • Tru-Scale corn picker box
    This box for the Tru-Scale mounted corn picker shows the variety of implements made by the company.
    Bill Vossler
  • John Deere 9400T pewter tractor model
    A pewter model of a John Deere 9400T tractor.
    Bill Vossler
  • Oliver toy combine box
    This Oliver Grain Master combine, made by Slik, had “many movable parts,” as proclaimed on the box.
    Bill Vossler
  • Eska coffin block John Deere Model A pedal tractor
    The rarest of all Eska toys is this “coffin block” John Deere Model A made by the company in 1949. Only a half dozen were produced.
    Bill Vossler
  • Tru-Scale tractor N mounted cornpicker box
    Tru-Scale made a variety of farm toy sets, like this rare “Tru-Scale Tractor ‘N’ Mounted Cornpicker” assortment. Manufactured in 1972 by Carter Tru-Scale, it is a nifty and colorful set.
    Bill Vossler
  • Tru-Toy farm implement set box
    Tru-Toy sets like this are difficult to find.
    Bill Vossler
  • Minneapolis-Moline Model R box and toy tractor
    Slik manufactured this Minneapolis-Moline R with flare wagon; note the colorful box.
    Bill Vossler
  • SpecCast John Deere A toy tractor
    SpecCast’s pewter farm toys include a wide variety, like this John Deere A tractor. Most are in 1/64 scale.
    Bill Vossler
  • Topping Models Ferguson disc-plow and box
    Topping Models, Akron, Ohio, made this rare and difficult-to-find 1/12-scale Ferguson disc-plow, which was mounted to fit the Ferguson TO-30 tractor.
    Bill Vossler
  • Reuhl Products Massey-Harris 44 toy tractor
    Reuhl Products made this Massey-Harris 44 tractor. Like all of the company’s toys, it could be disassembled by removing screws. Note the screw head just below the Massey-Harris decal.
    Bill Vossler
  • John Deere 20 pedal tractor
    A 1/8-scale John Deere 20 pedal tractor, the only one of its size built. The builder is not known, but judging by the production number, it was probably Ertl.
    Bill Vossler
  • John Deere 520 wood model
    Most farm toy collectors are not big on models made of wood, unless they are exceptional, like this John Deere 520 made by Marvin Kruse.
    Bill Vossler

  • John Deere Model A toy tractor made by Fred Ertl Sr.
  • Minneapolis-Moline R toy tractor
  • Tru-Scale corn picker box
  • John Deere 9400T pewter tractor model
  • Oliver toy combine box
  • Eska coffin block John Deere Model A pedal tractor
  • Tru-Scale tractor N mounted cornpicker box
  • Tru-Toy farm implement set box
  • Minneapolis-Moline Model R box and toy tractor
  • SpecCast John Deere A toy tractor
  • Topping Models Ferguson disc-plow and box
  • Reuhl Products Massey-Harris 44 toy tractor
  • John Deere 20 pedal tractor
  • John Deere 520 wood model

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.



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