"I enjoy reading your weekly article in The Wisconsin State Farmer — you always come up with a variety of interesting people and places," writes Kelly Moore, Product and Training Specialist at Manitou Americas (formerly The Gehl Co.) at West Bend. "I recently met a gentleman that is quite interesting ... he makes wonderful replica farm toys and would make for a great story ..."
Thanks Kelly for the suggestion and how right you are: Tom Brunner, part-time farmer at Verona, full-time employee at nearby Ellis Manufacturing Co. and all-the-time thinker about making scale model farm toys is a most ingenious craftsman who can do things most of us can't even imagine.
Like making one-fifth scale model farm equipment, much of it that was horse drawn and surpassed by technology 50 or more, years ago. Hay loaders, tobacco planters, walking plows and one-row cultivators, tractors, threshers, all that actually work are among his creations.
Creations they most certainly are because no one sells pieces and parts for a pre World War I Gehl tractor model that was never made available to farmers — in fact, never got beyond the prototype stage. The tractor was almost ready to hit the market when war time restrictions on use of metal prevented its market entry.
Brunner has one of these unique and rare tractors because he made it from scratch. "I found some old photos and drawings," he says. "I also found out how big the rear drive wheel was (42 inches) and from that could figure the other dimensions."
Would you believe, that tank-like, offset steering tractor model even runs — not from a miniature gas engine as did the full-size version, rather from parts of a cordless drill buried inside the tank-like tractor body.
One might think that Tom Brunner had been crafting model toys all his life, not true. It all really got going some 26 years ago when Brunner ran over one of his children's pedal tractors and had to fix it.
About that same time, he attended The Greater Madison Area Farm Toy Show in Verona hosted by the Verona FFA that was in its early years. He saw a collection of pedal tractors and a whole new world opened up for him.
He began his own collection of pedal tractors — you know the kind, most every farm boy has chugged around the barn or driveway in one straining, struggling and vroom, vrooming through the sand, gravel and sometimes manure on the barn aisle.
As his collection grew to now maybe 150 tractors (some still in the box) Brunner began exhibiting them at farm toy shows and for many years ran the children's pedal tractor competition at the Verona Toy Show.
Not satisfied as only a collector, Brunner began using the talents he used as a welder, metal fabricator and repair whiz as a partner in Brunner Bros. Welding Inc. at Verona, and started making farm equipment to go with the pedal tractors.
From there, he really got serious about creating farm toys to where he now guesses he has some 200 pieces.
One of his first highly detailed pieces was an Allis Chalmers, All-Crop Harvester Model 60 combine that actually runs and would no doubt combine oats today if you had a field of equally sized one-fifth scale oats.
Then there is the Massey-Harris hay loader model of the latest in hay making equipment before the modern baler hit the market. Folks who never built a load of hay in front of a hay loader are lucky, it was hard, hard work.
The horse-drawn farm equipment needs horses to pull it and Brunner has the horses. He made them to scale and covered them, not with plastic, but with leather to make them really real life.
Brunner admits his early "built from scratch" farm equipment models were not as perfect and refined as those he's built in recent years. He also doesn't like to create from photos, he will buy an actual piece of equipment and stand it next to his shop where he can see and measure every detail.
"I've gotten fussier as I've gotten older," he says. "And my models are better."
In addition to having a large 20x40-foot exhibit at the Verona FFA toy show each February, Brunner annually has a big display at the Badger Steam and Gas Show in Baraboo. He also attends the Richfield Historical Society Thresheree in September and will be making a model Gehl manure spreader for that event next year.
He makes one-fifth scale model farm equipment that is much larger than the traditional and very popular one-sixteenth scale models that are seen in most toy shows. If you didn't know, model farm toys are big business and draw large crowds to the many shows held annually across Wisconsin.
There is something about model farm toys that hits the hearts of many former and current farmers, young and old, probably because they grew up using such equipment as youth or spent years as actual or former farmers.
Yet from my experience attending a number of model toy shows, I'd guess many of the attendees fit none of those categories. Could it be because playing "cops and robbers," "cowboys and Indians" and "red rover" are out of fashion and playing "farming" is in? Or is it because most everyone at heart is a would-be farmer?
Rosemary Brunner is a neat housekeeper who tolerates her husband's propensity to create some clutter — after all it's hard to cut, weld, drill and assemble things without some mess and admits she let him assemble farm toys on the kitchen table several years ago while he recovered from a hospital stay.
She was also a busy mother raising her own three children and being a foster parent for 33 more over a 13-year span.
Although Tom Brunner is well recognized in the model toy world as a true artist and craftsman he is not a commercial marketer of his creations. "It takes a lot of time to make each piece and there is really no commercial market where such expensive pieces can be sold," he says. "Yes, I've sold some pieces that mean special things to people but I get the enjoyment from making them and exhibiting them at a few shows."
Although Brunner is in his 70s, he works full-time at Verona's Ellis Manufacturing, which makes band saws and blades, drill presses and belt grinders, as a problem solver and fixer of tools that require challenging repairs.
Anyone who ever raised tobacco in Wisconsin, will know the name "Ellis Manufacturing," it was on the water barrel of most every tobacco planter everywhere. The company quit making the transplanter in the 1980s: "they just never wore out," a company official told me for a story I wrote years ago. How true, and they are still used every spring in planting tobacco (and other crops).
How he makes those precise scale model farm toys is the question Brunner is often asked.
"It takes a lot of patience," is his answer.
That's not really an answer because most of us mechanical klutzes know we couldn't make even one piece in a 100 years even if we tried.
Thanks to Tom Brunner who recreates the past and revives memories. You can enjoy his creations at the Verona FFA Model Toy Show at the high school on the second Sunday of February. See you there.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.