Not for Kids Only: Toy Farm Displays

Vintage toy collectors show ingenuity with hand-crafted farm displays for their collections.

| May 2008

  • Chris used 1/16 scale for part of his farm display
    Chris used 1/16 scale for part of his farm display.
  • Chris Burmeister puts finishing touches on his display at a recent toy show
    Chris Burmeister puts finishing touches on his display at a recent toy show.
  • Harvey Wolff, Oakes, N.D., began building farm displays in his basement as a way to unwind after coaching basketball games
    Harvey Wolff, Oakes, N.D., began building farm displays in his basement as a way to unwind after coaching basketball games. (Photo courtesy Harvey Wolff.)
  • The background for this display of Vindex farm toys created an early farm diorama
    The background for this display of Vindex farm toys created an early farm diorama (or farm display).
  • Bird's eye view of Mike's interior shed layout
    Bird's eye view of Mike's interior shed layout.
  • North Dakotan John Becker detailed this farmhouse, a model of his boyhood home
    North Dakotan John Becker detailed this farmhouse, a model of his boyhood home. The model is on display in the Dale and Martha Hawk Museum near Wolford, N.D.
  • Jake Mehr works with some of the 1/64-scale toys in his layout
    Jake Mehr works with some of the 1/64-scale toys in his layout.
  • Note the realistic details in this part of Mike Schlangen's farm display
    Note the realistic details in this part of Mike Schlangen's farm display, including the plastic-covered bales.
  • Lush green tones in Jim Willey’s displays give the sense of spring breaking out.
    Lush green tones in Jim Willey’s displays give the sense of spring breaking out.
  • Jim Willey’s displays are grounded in reality
    Jim Willey’s displays are grounded in reality. The “Delhi Dairy” referenced on the tanker truck (front) is a real company.
  • Chris Burmeister’s remarkably realistic farm display
    Chris Burmeister’s remarkably realistic farm display at the 2005 World Pork Expo at Des Moines, Iowa.
  • Dave Konz’s John Deere dealership holds center stage in the middle of his machine shed
    Dave Konz’s John Deere dealership holds center stage in the middle of his machine shed.
  • Chris made this wind tower for his latest farm display
    Chris made this wind tower for his latest farm display.

  • Chris used 1/16 scale for part of his farm display
  • Chris Burmeister puts finishing touches on his display at a recent toy show
  • Harvey Wolff, Oakes, N.D., began building farm displays in his basement as a way to unwind after coaching basketball games
  • The background for this display of Vindex farm toys created an early farm diorama
  • Bird's eye view of Mike's interior shed layout
  • North Dakotan John Becker detailed this farmhouse, a model of his boyhood home
  • Jake Mehr works with some of the 1/64-scale toys in his layout
  • Note the realistic details in this part of Mike Schlangen's farm display
  • Lush green tones in Jim Willey’s displays give the sense of spring breaking out.
  • Jim Willey’s displays are grounded in reality
  • Chris Burmeister’s remarkably realistic farm display
  • Dave Konz’s John Deere dealership holds center stage in the middle of his machine shed
  • Chris made this wind tower for his latest farm display

Farm Displays Grow Up

About 15 years ago, people attending farm toy shows began noticing a proliferation of farm displays: model displays of farmsteads and fields, buildings, crops and machinery, exhibited on tables. Truth is, farm displays have been around for decades. Recently, though, they have become common at toy shows.

Ev Weber, Lima, Ohio, remembers making his own displays as a boy. "Each winter during the Great Depression, my father took the car and trailer to a local factory, and for 10 cents he bought a load of scrap wood for the furnace," he says. As a boy, Ev routinely appropriated a few scraps to use in making toy tractors and implements, using a saw and hammer, 7-penny nails for axles and a cigar box with wheels to pull behind the tractor. Thus equipped, he could pretend to farm.

Lloyd Jark of Sioux Falls, S.D., had a similar experience. "During the 1930s we made our toys out of blocks of wood, with wheels made of old thread spools or Mason jar lids with a nail driven through the center," he recalls. Two blocks of wood nailed together made a tractor cab, shingle nails pounded through a board made a drag, and an old spoon became a plow as Lloyd and his brother played in the dirt. "To pull the implements we used little pieces of string attached to the tractor," Lloyd says. "We thought it was great; we had a lot of fun. And we did it all by hand. We used a lot of imagination in those days."

One of the first commercial farm displays appeared at about the same time. At implement dealerships, cast iron Vindex toys manufactured by National Sewing Machine Co., Belvidere, Ill., were staged in front of a traditional farm scene printed on cardboard, creating a diorama. The backdrop featured a red-roofed barn with cupola, house and garage, fields, roads traveled by cars and trucks, and even an airplane aloft in the sky. Those cardboard backdrops are extremely rare and difficult to find today.



Evolution of a hobby

Farm displays came into their own during the late 1980s and early 1990s as farm toy collecting entered the mainstream, and collectors no longer hid behind the 'toys for the grandchildren' excuse. As the hobby matured, cast iron toys were replaced by die-cast pieces, well-known lines (John Deere and International Harvester) were joined by the more obscure (Silver King and Heider), and simple toys were pushed aside by finely detailed replicas. Customizing and scratch-building added another dimension to the hobby, delivering richly detailed, handcrafted models.

The next step seemed logical: recreating the old home place, or an imaginary one … an implement dealership or machine shed … an ag-related truck stop … even a farm town -- anything the builder might desire in a farm display.



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