A Minnesota Museum of Farm Toys

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Above: The Froehlich tractor shown here is often cited as the first tractor ever made. This handmade model shows the variety in Loren Stier’s collection.
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Above: A rare 1/16-scale cast iron Arcade John Deere Model A tractor, one of the pieces from Loren Stier’s boyhood. It shows considerable wear and tear.
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Below: Loren Stier with a trio of prized handmade toys: 1/8-scale versions of a Case steam traction engine (foreground), a Nichols & Shepard steam traction engine, and a thresher (at back).
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Above: Loren Stier likes custom-made and hand-built farm toys, like this Yoder-made John Deere 720 with pony start, in 1/16-scale.
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Left: The Country Showcase Toy Museum has foreign farm toys as well as American, like this German plastic Bruder John Deere 6400 tractor.
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Right: This John Deere 420 crawler (produced for the 18th Annual Plow City Toy Show in Moline, Ill.) graces one of the shelves in Loren Stier’s museum. This one has metal tracks, just like the real ones. Those are the kinds of realistic details Loren likes toys in his museum to have.
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Below: This John Deere 530 is a unique model, as only one of these handmade wood models was ever made by Marvin Kruse. The museum has a complete collection of Kruse wood models.
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Below: This pewter combine in 1/64-scale is also a part of Loren’s museum. It represents a John Deere 9750 STS combine.
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Right: Before Shirley Stier had the murals painted, this is what the displays looked like. This one represents the 1950s farm. Among Loren’s favorites: a corn-drying scene, complete with little fans. “They make the same sound as the real ones,” he says.
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Below: Farms from two eras are visible in this photo. To the right, with the horses and wagon, and older-model cars, is the farm of the 1930s. To the left, with the larger barn and other red buildings, is a farm of the 1940s.
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Right: Loren and Shirley Stier of the Country Showcase Toy Museum.

If you build it, they will come. That might
have been the motto of Loren Stier of Belle Plaine, Minn., who has
parlayed a love of farming and farm toys into a museum dedicated to
farm toys. Through word-of-mouth, visitors have heard about the
museum, and come from all over the world. “I’ve had visitors from
Australia, France and Germany,” Loren says. “Often they are
visiting in the area, and they are told about this interesting
museum out in the country near Belle Plaine.” A London, England,
toy collector heard about the museum, and stopped in, as well as a
group of Japanese exchange students. “They really enjoyed it.”

Loren, 73, got his start in farm toys in 1939 when he received a
1/16-scale Arcade cast iron McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor and
Arcade threshing machine for Christmas. The next year, at age 8, he
received a pair of 1/16-scale Vindex cast iron black horses and
1/16-scale Vindex grain wagon. “I began my farming in miniature at
that time,” says the former owner of Stier Bus & Truck with a
chuckle. “I was collecting a long time before I thought of the
museum. I was collecting years ago, not yet realizing that many
others were also collecting farm toys.”

Business paves the way

Loren’s bus business, now run by his son and son-in-law, was
instrumental in the creation of the museum in 1985. “We moved the
bus business to new quarters,” he says, “which left an empty
building behind.” The next winter was a mild one, allowing Loren
time to get out his toys and erect displays.

Ten years later, the business helped the hobby again. “We were
looking for high land for towers for our radio system for busses,
and we found the land where we’re now located,” he recalls. “It was
65 acres, so we decided to build a house and a new and larger
museum.”

Building a collection

Today the 124-by-48-foot two-story museum houses thousands of
toy tractors, implements and trucks, as well as collections of
dolls and a few antique and classic cars. As a former volunteer
fireman in Belle Plaine, Loren counts vintage fire trucks among his
interests. He has a pair of full-size trucks (an open-cab 1923
Universal fire truck and an open-cab 1937 Studebaker fire truck) to
go with his collection of toy fire trucks.

But Loren’s first love is miniatures. “Like cast iron threshing
machines, teams of horses, cast iron tractors from the 1920s,” he
says. “I’d say they’re possibly the most-sought cast iron toys of
any.”

In the early days of the hobby, finding farm toys wasn’t easy.
Loren went to stores and implement dealers looking for toys.
Although he enjoyed the hunt, he didn’t find much. While he was
building the museum, Loren had other people out looking for
specific toys to fill niches, but he doesn’t do that any longer.
“Other people don’t always understand what I have or what I want in
the museum,” he says. He got some of his toys by trading
duplicates, and when he found gaps in certain areas, he
commissioned craftsmen to make specific toys and models.

New acquisitions are rarer for him now, because the collection
is solid. However, because he likes detail, he does buy the Racing
Champions/Ertl Co. Precision series of farm toys. “I’ll still
occasionally buy some of the custom-made or handmade toys, too,” he
says.

Unusual pieces make collection special

Besides picking up hundreds of farm toys to show the evolution
of the tractor and farm toys in general, Loren has pushed the
museum in two other directions. First, he loves different and
unusual toys, like those that are scratch-built. He has a
collection of 1/12-scale wooden tractors made by the late Marvin
Kruse. Several are one-of-a-kind. “Marvin told me I was the only
one who had one of each.” He also has examples of tractors built by
the most-respected farm toy scratch-builders, men like Gilbert
Berg, Pete Freiheit and Gilson Riecke.

A trio of pieces crafted by a local man is a particular prize.
After many years of pining over a pair of painstakingly hand-built
steam traction engines, Loren finally had a chance to get them. “A
few years after (the builder) died, his brother, who was getting
older, asked if I was still interested in the Case steam traction
engine and the Nichols & Shepard steam traction engines. I said
I was. He said he liked my museum and felt pretty sure I would
never sell those steam engines if I had them, because he wanted to
see them stay in my museum.” Loren also got a handmade threshing
machine in the deal. All are 1/8-scale.

He likes all lines of toy machinery, he says, “but I think I’m
more in the John Deere line, but just by a little bit,” he says.
“Some are really unique. I delight more in the custom-made things,
because not every collector has them. Everybody has the John Deere
730 but you see things in my museum that not every collector
has.”

Some of his toys portray aspects of farm life made obsolete by
modern technology. His toy 1/16-scale John Deere tractor, for
instance, has a front-mounted saw, a customary configuration in an
era when people cut wood to heat their houses. He also has a few
gas farm engines, recalling the days before rural electrification,
when stationary engines were the primary source of power on the
farm.

Crawlers are featured at Loren’s Country Showcase Toy Museum as
well. Several are from the Plow City Toy Show held annually in
Moline, Ill. He also has several early Ertl-made crawlers from the
1950s. The equipment inventory includes dozens of threshers,
pull-type and self-propelled combines, plows, disks and balers,
even lawn and garden tractors and much more. The museum has toys
made of wood, pressed steel, cast iron, pewter and other
materials.

The collection even includes imports. On a 1979 trip to Germany,
Loren bought European toys, like a 1/32-scale Lanz tractor, and
dozens of 1/43-scale toys. Later additions include a Bruder John
Deere 6400 tractor, and Sigomec-made John Deere farm toys from
Argentina.

Elaborate displays tell the story of American agriculture

A second major focus at the museum is farm displays. “I have
eight different farms from eight different eras,” Loren says,
“starting with the 1920s through the 1980s. The one from the 1920s
is from the later part of that decade. After that, each display
shows how farm building design has changed, just as it did on real
farms, and how the machinery has changed as well, from the
early-day horse-drawn manure spreader to hay loaders to modern-day
tractors.” He’s also created a modern pig-feeding farm display.

The farm displays exhibit the varied lines of Loren’s toys,
including John Deere, IHC, Allis-Chalmers, Oliver, Massey-Harris,
Ford, Case and others. All sizes of toys, from 1/64-scale through
1/8-scale, are shown.

“I don’t know how I got started on the displays,” Loren says. “I
think it was because I had bought these different farm setups from
time to time, like barns with an A-roof, then a hip roof, then a
round roof, and I started putting those up, and then putting in the
machinery from that era.”

The displays in themselves were marvelous, but one feature
remained incomplete. “I thought about having murals of the
countryside painted on the walls in the background,” Loren says,
“but that meant all the toys and all the buildings had to be moved,
and I wasn’t about to do that.”

But his wife was. A couple of years ago, when Loren was on an
extended trip, his wife, Shirley, called local artist Lana Beck,
who paints murals. Unbeknownst to Loren, Shirley moved all the
buildings and toys, and Lana painted murals as backgrounds. “I had
no idea she was going to do that,” Loren says. “The murals show the
seasons from summer to fall and then back to summer again. It was a
lot of work to do all that, and now it’s kind of neat. She deserves
a lot of credit for what she did.”

Preserving the vision

Loren credits his farm background as the inspiration for his
enduring interest in the collection. “I was born on a farm and
lived there until I was 5,” he says, “but worked on farms until I
graduated from high school.” He says he was always intrigued with
farming, and would have gone into farming if his dad had stayed on
the farm.

Today, he oversees a farm built on fields of dreams. The
displays churn up countless memories, especially for older
visitors. “The older people – the people who worked out in the
fields threshing and doing all that hard work – they really like
it,” he says.

When his museum was designed, no blueprints were drawn, Loren
says. “I had in my mind what I wanted,” he recalls. One day, as he
told the carpenters how he wanted the display area to look, one
asked him to repeat the directions. “Will you run that by me
again?” he asked. “I don’t have the vision yet.”

He needn’t have worried: Loren Stier had it covered.

For more information:
Loren Stier, 24136 Johnson Memorial, Belle Plaine, MN
56011.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several
books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372,
400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail:
bvossler@juno.com

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