What better to do on a cold winter Sunday than attend a Model Farm Toy Show?
It is a chance to meet old and new friends, relive however briefly, days of long ago and on this Sunday have a pancake breakfast — all for a measly $6!
The Darlington Wisconsin FFA Alumni/FFA Farm Toy Show and Pancake Breakfast has been around for the better part of three decades — well, the pancake breakfast has. The Farm Toy Show is just 11 years old, much younger than many farm toy shows held across the state each year.
Jack Sauer remembers well how the farm toy show got started: His son Brock, who was in high school at the time, asked him why Darlington didn't have a farm toy show like lots of other high school FFAs did.
Sauer couldn't come up with a good answer and brought up the idea to the FFA alumni who were longtime sponsors of the annual pancake breakfast fundraiser.
The FFA alumni also thought it was a good idea but would need someone to head up the toy show and suggested Jack would be the logical man.
Jack Sauer, cash grain farmer, custom operator (everything except chopping) and Lafayette County Board chairman, found himself a new job that he has happily carried out for 11 years.
Farm toy shows are generally set up on tables in the high school gym with each vendor charged a fee. The Darlington gym was full with most exhibits centering on scale model farm toys with a scattering of other farm memorabilia including a big collection of old farm equipment manuals and — would you believe — a vendor selling embroidered toilet paper?
The folks who haul big trailers and/or trucks packed with boxes of model toys go through a lot of work to get to the show. They have to make everything fit into the trailer, make the trip which can be a long distance: Like from Brussels in Door County to Darlington or from Cedar Rapids, IA, for instance.
Then it's unloading and setting up and after the show ends, they repeat the process. As one vendor from Marion, IA, says, "it pretty much kills the day."
Farm toy shows are all about memories. The folks who have the collections and sell them to others at the many farm toy shows held across the country pretty much got started by buying a toy or two that reminded them of their days as youngsters on the farm or visiting their grandpa's or other relation's farm or as retired farmers.
Perhaps it was a model toy tractor, like the one they learned on 50 years ago, that they saw at a model toy show or farm equipment dealership and bought to put on a shelf. Then maybe a plow and a combine or corn picker followed and pretty soon the basement is jammed with the collection.
Then a time may come when they want to sell a few things and they become a vendor at a small toy show and share their collection with others. "A farm toy collector is just a common person who let their memories get out of control," a farm toy collector once told me.
Martin Winch who owns Marty and Marty Toys at Marion, IA, filled over 50 feet of table space at Darlington. "I've been showing at farm toy shows for over 30 years," he says. "I did 36 shows a year at one time with a wide variety of farm toy makes and models. Now I'm down to maybe eight shows this year."
Winch was proud to admit that his real job was as superintendent overseeing the processing of Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal at the Quaker Oats plant in Cedar Rapids for 39 years.
"My father and grandfather were farm toy collectors," says Don Wesemann, Hampshire lL, a special needs administrator at the local school system. "I still collect farm toys but have gotten into die cast trucks. It's a hobby and I like to meet people at shows."
Mike Larson, who owns Mike's Toys, made a long trip from Brussels in Door County with his array of model tractors. "That's not a bad trip," he says. "I attend about 40 shows a year."
The many people wandering the aisles between exhibit table are indeed mostly "just wandering," open to buying something, but not knowing what until they see it.
Others are seeking to add to or fill out a collection.
Then there are the young parents or grandparents with children in tow searching for the right toy their children will play with. Like Jeremy and Andrea Gordon and their children Kelsey (4) and Alex (3) who milk 65 cows at Davis, IL. They aren't collectors or experts in model toys but came to the show to buy a few toys for their children.
"They like to play with the 1/64 scale tractors," Andrea says. "It's a good way to learn about farming."
Everyone has a reason for getting involved in model farm toys, mostly it has something to do with memories: The first tractor dad owned; like the ones I played with as a youngster; the first one I drove; the kinds I worked on as a mechanic; seeing a friend's collection.
The first commercially produced model farm toys were said to have been made by the Wilking Toy Co. in Keene, NH, in 1866: A cast iron horse drawn hay mower, plow hay rake and hay tedder.
The idea didn't catch on and expand for many years although Montgomery Ward did offer a limited number in its catalog over the years. A wide variety of companies made good model toys all the while but didn't have wide appeal.
The modern era of die cast farm toys started with Fred Ertl, who forged his first aluminum tractor replica in 1945 in his basement in Dubuque, IA. The company grew and in 1959 moved to Dyersville, IA, and became the biggest producer of die-cast metal alloy farm toy replicas.
In the mid-1970s, Claire and Cathy Scheibe, grain and beef farmers at LaMoure, ND, were buying and selling antiques to supplement their farm income, began to collect old farm toys they came upon.
In 1976, Claire, who was becoming known for his collecting efforts, and a friend bought hundreds of surplus farm toys from the Ertl Company at Dyersville, IA, at a cheap price. He was also buying old toy inventories from farm equipment dealers.
ln 1977 the Scheibes, with the encouragement of friends, began seriously thinking about printing a newsletter about farm toys and on Jan. 1, 1978, published a six-page black-and-white newsletter. Many see that as the real kick-start to making the farm toy collecting industry what it is today.
The Scheibes' Toy Farmer magazine is now known as the bible of the industry and is still owned by Cathy Scheibe (Claire died in 2000). In 1978, the Scheibes initiated the first National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville, IA, that continues today as the big event of the year and attracts thousands of people.
Farm toy collecting is still a hobby based on history and memories. Attend a farm toy show, you'll see.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.