Farm toys at a Minnesota museum celebrate American agriculture through the decades.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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: firstname.lastname@example.org