Dale Swoboda of Two Rivers, Wis., knows more than the average collector about Wisconsin farm toy companies. 'When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Kewaunee County, I collected farm toys, but I never paid that much attention to where a lot of them were coming from,' Dale says. 'After I went to my first toy show in 1978, I started looking at where these models were being made.'
He began by reading a couple of books on toys by Ray Crilley and Chuck Burkholder. 'They had the toys and the names of the companies that made them, and then I started realizing, 'My gosh, there are a lot of Wisconsin farm toy makers - especially in plastic,'' Dale says.
The Product Miniature Corp. of Pewaukee, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, made a Farmall M, Ford 8N, Ford Jubilee, Ford 900, some crawlers and IH trucks all out of plastic. Nowadays, the factory still makes plastic products - but not toys -and Product Miniature toys command a high price on the toy market.
Another small firm, the American Precision Co. of Milwaukee, made models of the Allis-Chalmers C and an Allis-Chalmers plow that was sold with it, as well as a disk and a harrow.
Kaysun Corp. of Manitowoc, Wis., on the other hand, was a prolific plastic toy maker in the 1950s and 1960s. Its most popular model was the Allis-Chalmers D-14. Four varieties of the toy were packaged and marketed: a fully-assembled toy tractor or kit through Allis-Chalmers dealers, another different kit in dime stores, and yet another kit through a cereal box-top offer. 'This D-14 series tractor was made in the 1960s, and you could send in a quarter and some certain cereal box-top - I can't for the life of me remember what brand it was, but I'm working on it - and you'd get the model sent to you free so you could put it together,' Dale says. 'Most people call the kits 'Strombecker' toys, because that's who distributed them, but they were actually Kaysun toys.'
Kaysun is still in business, Dale says, but it's not making farm toys. Some of its models are on display at its corporate offices, however, and if you turn them over and look, on the front axle is printed 'Kaysun, Manitowoc, Wisconsin.'
Monarch Plastics, out of Milwaukee, was another company that made plastic toys in Wisconsin. 'They made a Case DC tractor and Case SC tractor in plastic back in the 1950s, one with fenders and one without,' Dale remembers. 'They also made a Case manure spreader. If you find that toy in mint condition you're pretty lucky, because the top spreader bar is easily broken off it.'
Metal toys also were produced, some manufactured by Reuhl Products, Inc., of Madison, Wis., and very difficult to find today. 'They made a well-detailed toy in the late 1940s and 1950s and weren't in business that long, but they made some out standing toys,' Dale says. 'You could take all their toys apart, because they were made with screws, and put them back together again. You could order parts for them. They also made a lot of construction stuff, and their toys were expensive for the time.'
Reuhl toys include the Massey-Harris 44 tractor, three-bottom plow, wagon, Clipper combine, loader and disk as well as Farmall Cub tractors. 'A surprising thing,' Dale says, 'considering half that stuff was made in Madison, it took me years to find some of it like the loader, disk and plow. I got that stuff only about 12 years ago. Maybe a bunch of it was shipped to Canada and forgotten, I don't know.'
The Clipper combines were made as a pull type (which came in several varieties, depending on the hitch), and the self-propelled, which also had several varieties, was determined by the location of the operator seat. A foundry in Plymouth, Wis., originally made the pull-type combines. Instead of 'Reuhl' incised on the body, the toys have 'Plymouth Foundry.' 'I just picked that Plymouth Foundry one up,' Dale says. 'The header is different from other pull-type Clippers.' Dale also says that when Reuhl bought the Plymouth Foundry model, the company reinforced it so the model wouldn't break as easily. He's still looking for a Plymouth Foundry combine in excellent shape, with the box, but at least for now he has one in poor condition for his collection.
Reuhl Products also made a line of Caterpillar toys. It went out of business in 1958 after its contracts for manufacturing Massey-Harris and Caterpillar toys were not renewed for unknown reasons.
A large demand for forage harvesters and choppers comes from Wisconsin since it is a dairy state, and Wisconsin companies have sprung up to meet that need. 'But usually these are small companies, so rarely are any toys made of the real Wisconsin firms,' Dale says.
One of those is the Fox Tractor Co. in Appleton, Wis. 'They went out of business in 1985, and no toy was ever made of the Fox tractor or chopper,' Dale says. 'So I had one of those made by a custom builder I know. Fox was the innovator of the pull-type forage chopper that was invented in the late 1940s.' Before the forage chopper, the farmer had to gather bundles and run them through the feed cutter. The forage chopper allows the farmer to blow the silage right into the wagon and then into the silo, saving the farmer a lot of work.
Dale has had dozens of custom toys made, and many of those Wisconsin-made toys were never produced by a toy company. Custom work is expensive.
'From $100 to $300 per piece, depending on how much detail work you want on it,' Dale says.
The Algoma Foundry of Algoma, Wis., was another small farm company. 'They started out making feed cutters and silo fillers, and then made choppers,' Dale says. 'Later, Badger-Northland bought them out, and still later, Massey-Harris purchased the company.' No farm toy was made of its chopper, due to low demand, but that didn't stop Dale. He made his own Algoma chopper. 'I made one out of wood and metal and so forth,' he says. 'It looks fairly realistic. It's not a Precision model by any means but it does what it's supposed to. When you show it to local people at a show of Wisconsin-made items, they are really intrigued and interested in it.'
Gehl Manufacturing of West Bend is yet another Wisconsin company. 'It's still in business making forage harvesters,' Dale says. 'But so far a toy one hasn't been made, and since I wanted one, I had one made out of wood by custom-builder Tom Dolan, who has custom-built some of the other Gehl toys, too.' And Die-Cast Promotions has recently begun making some Gehl toy items, such as a 1/64 scale round baler.
Brillion Iron Works in Brillion, Wis., manufactures seeders and tillage equipment, including a compacter, and Dale has had some of those commissioned as toys and built by custom builders. It often takes a long time for him to get the toys he wants, he says. 'By the time you measure the machinery, get the builder the information, have them study it, and then take the time to build it, it could take a year or more,' Dale says.
Still another small Wisconsin company was the Lauson Tractor Co. of New Holstein, which made Lauson 'full-jeweled' tractors into the 1930s. 'No toy was made of that tractor, so I had a model made of it a few years ago,' he says. 'If I end up making a model of my own, it takes me all winter. I'm not the greatest at it. If I do it, all it costs is my time and some paint, and the models I make are okay. But the better models that I have in my collection have been built by somebody else for me.'
Dale is interested in much more than Wisconsin farm toys, however. He has a huge toy collection - more than 3,000 pieces - of farm toy brands and sizes from all over. 'I've always had an interest in ag heritage, no matter if it were the toys or the history of the big companies out there, or the interest in local companies,' Dale says. 'I would say that in the last 10 or 15 years, I have really started researching when different companies went out of business.'
For the past 20 years Dale has taken pictures of machinery that had been used in the fields, but now is disappearing. He belongs to a group called Ag Heritage and Resources, which preserves Wisconsin history, especially in the four northern counties near where Dale lives. 'We own an 1867 Czech farm right here in Kewaunee County, and in 2003 the 'Barn Again!' Smithsonian exhibit is coming to that farm from July 6 to July 27.'
In early November 2002, Dale attend ed his 25th consecutive National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, Iowa. 'The hobby is still going strong,' he says. 'Crowds were great, and because it's such a great group of people, I don't mind taking away from my researching and my Wisconsin toys.' FC
- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org