For years, children and adults alike wrote letters to the Vindex Toy Company, thanking them for the wonderful cast iron toys they made, ordering other ones, or asking if they wouldn't please manufacture a Rumely Oil Pull, or maybe a Woods Brothers Thresher.
Only problem is, the Vindex Toy Company never existed.
'Actually,' says Harold D. Neff in a letter to the Boone Co. Historical Society, Belvidere, Ill., 'There never was a Vindex Toy Company, but a line of cast iron toys and novelties, including some bank numbers, manufactured by National Sewing Machine Co.,' of Belvidere, Ill.
Like many other toys - Wilkins and Kingsbury just to name two - beloved Vindex toys were merely an afterthought to a company doing well selling other products: in this case, sewing machines (making 500 Family Sewing Machines daily) and washing machines (250 per day). Then came 1930, the Great Depression, plunging prices, and badly depressed sales.
Neff, who headed up the Vindex toy division of National Sewing Machine Company throughout its existence, and worked at the company from 1916-1951, says 'We wanted to be able to retain as many of our employees as was possible, and began to produce other lines of goods that would give work to our people.' Those goods included a complete line of Home Work Shop Machinery (lathes, band saws, jig saws, saw tables, and line shaft assemblies), and cast iron toys.
'The line was quite complete,' Neff says. 'We negotiated with Oldsmobile and Pontiac to copy their line of cars in miniature, as well as Harley Davidson Motor cycles and side cars. Also, we made a power shovel in miniature, and a complete line of John Deere farm machinery.'
The line of cast iron toys needed a name, of course, and it is no mystery how it came about, Neff says. 'We were making a line of our sewing machines under the brand name Vindex, a somewhat unusual name, so when the time came to name the line of toys and novelties we decided to use the brand 'Vindex'.'
Vindex toys covered a wider field than cars, motorcycles, and farm toys, however: horse-drawn wagons, book-ends, table lamps, dog door stops, and dog and owl banks. 'We made several hundred thousand Bull Dog Door Stops (#151),' Neff writes, 'which were sold at $1 each to the trade.
'We also had a Setter Dog Door Stop (called 'Pal', #155), as well as a Scottie Dog Door Stop (Scottie Twin, #157) that sold in large quantities.'
Fifty people were employed to produce the line. One was Wade Leaich, 80, of Belvidere, perhaps the last surviving worker from the Vindex line.
'Everybody else who worked there was much older than I was. I had to leave high school at the end of my sophomore year,' he says, 'because my parents couldn't afford books or clothes for school. My dad was unemployed.'
So Leaich went to 'National,' and lied about his age. 'I was 15, but I told them I was 17, so I could get the Job.' That was Dec. 11, 1936. After a few months the boss asked Wade if he could read blueprints. 'I told them I could if I was given the chance. I'd never had any experience at it, so he let me learn to be a setup man. So I began to set up the machines that did the machine work on the Vindex toys.'
Each Vindex toy had its exact requirements. 'The blueprint called for certain dimensions on the parts, and if they wanted a hole drilled in the part and a (screw) tap, they tell you what size tap goes in there and the depth of the thread. So what I did was set up the machine to run that part.' The screw machine, or lathe, or milling machine also had to be set to different specifications for different toys, and when a new one came out - like the Case Manure Spreader (Case Spreader, #74) - or a new novelty, like the toy wheelbarrow - (#57), the machines had to be recalibrated. That was Wade's job.
'These toys were made in parts, and sections, like halves,' he says. 'They had to be riveted together, and all these parts had to pivot, like the front axle on the John Deere tractor, and the casting that the axle went through pivoted also, so the front wheels would turn, like the steering wheel in your car. There were quite a few different operations to learn, and it was kind of difficult, but I needed the job, so I figured I'd better get busy and learn it, so I did. I worked there for six years, and when I left, they offered me more money not to.'
Though there are doubtless people who love the Vindex Oldsmobile cars or Harley Davidson motorcycles, many people have a special place in their hearts for Vindex farm toys. Like Ray Lacktorin of Stillwater, Minn.
'One of the reasons I'm interested in cast iron is that it's got its own mystique,' he says. 'When you see a nice cast iron piece, you know that it's probably real, because you really can't go out and duplicate that stuff and make it look real old.'
He says no other cast iron-manufacturing companies made toys as wonderfully as Vindex and their John Deere and Case farm toy lines. 'The cast iron on all Vindex pieces, except for their cars, is so thin and the workmanship is so great,' he adds. 'No company has come close to the quality and the way they're made. You'll never have to apologize for owning any piece of Vindex.'
Ray's favorite Vindex piece is the John Deere combine. 'I think that is the greatest piece there is, the way it's made, and so operational, and it looks so much like the real thing,' he says. 'It's just a great piece, and Vindex did such beautiful work on it.'
He also really likes the Van Brunt grain drill. 'It's just a fantastic, great piece.' He says part of the reason the Vindex toys are so exquisitely made was probably because Vindex was a division of the National Sewing Machine Company.
Dale Johansen of Larimer, Iowa, also is very fond of Vindex farm toys. 'I had a cast iron manure spreader when I was a kid, and I've got one just like it right now,' he says. 'I had a John Deere Vindex three-bottom plow, and I've got one of those now, too.'
He said many people wouldn't believe where he got some of them. 'At the public dump years ago,' he marvels. 'You wouldn't believe what people used to throw away. I'd find those Vindex pieces there, and then take them home and fix them up.'
Quentin Christman of Rugby, N.D., started collecting old cast iron toys 30 years ago. He attended an auction at Bantry, N.D., and bought a Vindex cast iron tractor for a friend for $11. 'Some of the ranchers there thought I'd flipped my lid,' he laughs. He liked the looks of it so much that he not only decided to keep it, but he began to collect Vindex (and Arcade) cast iron farm toys himself.
He knew he had had some of the toys when he was a kid, but his mother said she had thrown them away. 'So I used a digger and manure spreader to go through the trash pile from all the years we'd lived on the farm.' But he wasn't as lucky in finding them as Dale Johansen was out at the local dump. However, when Quentin sold the Vindex John Deere tractor, he had the last laugh: he received more than a hundred times what he'd paid for it.
People who remember the Depression will tell about how they 'made do' for farm toys. Some they made of cardboard backs of writing tablets, snipping out tractor bodies and parts, making axles out of pieces of wire or pencils, or plowshares out of spoons, or wheels out of empty thread spools. However, homemade toys didn't last long in the sand. Besides, these children wanted real toys, like those in the Vindex line. Many of them took advantage of the union between Farm Mechanics magazine and National Sewing Machine Company. The magazine offered Vindex cast-iron toys as incentives to children who sold subscriptions to their magazine, and, unknowingly, created the scarcity (or lack of) of various Vindex toys that exists today. For example, the toy John Deere combine (#86, 'cutter and reel operate; imitation motor exhaust; painted in John Deere colors; removable man'; today worth $2,700-$5,500, depending on condition), which required five three-year subscriptions to the magazine ($1 per three-year subscription), is very rare. Meanwhile, the toy Case tractor (#36, 'equipped with power pulley; removable nickelled driver; lug rear wheels; $475-$ 1,000) could be had for only a single three-year subscription, and these Case tractors are common, as Vindex toys go.
Farm Mechanics also offered a Vindex toy hay rack (#89, 'front and rear standards collapse; green and red), for two subscriptions, and the Vindex John Deere hay loader (#85, 'revolving chains and teeth; positive drive wheels') and John Deere thresher (#88, 'removable straw stacker and grain pipe; loose drive pulley'), each for three subscriptions.
Occasionally the seller's subscription to Farm Mechanics would count to help 'purchase' some toys, as with the toy John Deere gas engine (#79). On others, like the rare ones, only subscriptions garnered from other people counted.
Vindex also made a series of trucks (Stake Truck #6, 7, and 8 - each a different size in red, blue and green; Box Truck #48 and 49, Autocar Dump Truck and Crane #65, Autocar Dump Truck #64), as well as cranes (P & H Power Excavator #55), which at 3 1/4 pounds and $18 a dozen was only a third of the weight (10 pounds) and cost ($48 a dozen) of the P & H Power Excavator #70. These are very rare.
Vindex also made a few racecars (Speed-Demon Racer #45), motorcycles ('Mike' The Speed Cop #1, P.D.Q. Motorcycle Delivery #3), a Belvidere Blimp #51 (silver with gold letters), and airplanes (Lockheed Speedy Mail Plane #41), and Fokker Planes #40 and #90.
Which brings up an interesting story. One day sometime in the 1930s, Wade Leaich was told to take some barrels of scrap cast iron and steel and separate the cast iron so it could be remelted for sewing machine heads. In the barrel among the broken parts he found parts for a Fokker airplane.
'I put the parts together myself,' he says, 'took it to the paint shop, and they didn't know what color to paint it, because these particular Fokkers had never gone into production.'
Afterwards he took it to the contract order department to buy it. 'The guy said, 'We don't even have it listed, so just give me a quarter and I'll write out a slip for you to take it out.' That was a full hour's pay for Wade at the time.
Fifty years later Wade sold the Fokker at auction for $1,750, and in one fell swoop realized as much money from the airplane as he'd made in almost three years of work at National at 25 cents an hour. Recently a different 9 Â¬?' Vindex Fokker Plane with nickelled propellers and wheels, a black engine, and original salesman's sample tags attached brought the un-toy like price of $26,400.
For Wade, making Vindex toys was more than a job. During those days women worked eight-hour days and men ten hours. 'After the women would go home, I'd usually go out to one of the machines for the last two hours of my shift, and put the Vindex toys together,' he says, 'because it was fun.'
Most of the Vindex cars and motorcycles were produced prior to 1936, and in 1938 National stopped making Vindex toys and novelties altogether, because, Wade says, the union was demanding high wages, 'a minimum of 40 cents an hour.'
Collectors looking for original Vindex boxes are probably out of luck, because no collectors have ever seen one. Rumor says they were packaged in small wood boxes that were, after opening, used for some practical purpose.
Vindex toys thrived until the early 1940s, when the National Sewing Machine Company was required to discontinue toys, sewing machines, and washing machines, to make materiel for World War II. They resumed production of sewing machines after World War II, but not Vindex toys. The company closed in 1955.
During the 1870s, 16 years before the first production farm toy was ever made, when tin toys were at the peak of their popularity, toy manufacturers began to explore the possibilities of cast iron. Tin wasn't durable enough for toys, and the much-more-durable cast iron was cheaper, said Joseph Doucette and C. L. Collins in Collecting Antique Toys. Cast iron toys were so popular that they were made until the outbreak of World War II, when cast iron was needed for the war effort. Companies making farm toys during those years included Arcade, National Sewing Machine Co. (Vindex farm toys), Kenton, and others. Eventually cast iron was edged out by lighter-weight toys which could be shipped for less.
'Cast iron toys,' David Longest wrote in Toys, Antique & Collectable, 'are considered by some to be the 'Cadillac' area of toy collecting because of the high quality of the toys and the high prices they command at toy shows and auctions.
Vindex John Deere manure spreaders can bring $3,000, while the Vindex John Deere combine can cost twice that. Hubley Fordson tractors can bring up to $1,800, and Arcade McCormick-Deering threshers can bring $1,200. McCormick-Deering tractors go for $500, and because of their scarcity, prices of Vindex toys will continue to rise.
Bill Vossler is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.