It was called the "Whitewater FFA Alumni 21st Annual Farm Toy Show," but it could as well be called the 21st Annual Hall of Farm Memories Show.
One of the two gymnasiums at Whitewater were filled with farm displays: Elaborate layouts of farmsteads, covering from one to maybe a dozen 4x8-foot tables, complete with livestock, buildings and machinery.
Each of the displays has a story.
"Mine started as an FFA Safety project 20 years ago and has grown since," Richard Morgan of Elkhorn says. "This one includes 600 dairy cows and is one of eight displays I've made. It's kind of a family affair with my parents Dan and Sally Morgan helping me at the three or four shows I display at each year. I've been at this show every year except for the first one."
"I started my display with a layout of my Aunt and Uncle's dairy farm," Chris Knull of Fontana says. "I had a train set when I was 10 years old (that was 30 years ago) and later got interested in farm displays."
Knull's display was big, covering 10 tables (that's some 300 square feet) with silos, grain bins, trucks and about every conceivable type of farm equipment. "It takes me six hours to set it up and a bit less to take down," Chris says.
The obviously old and a bit faded tractor umbrella marked Joe McCarthy's display. "My dad traded at Byrnes Implement in East Troy when the McCormick-Deering name was used." Joe says. "In 1948 the "Deering" was dropped and McCormick alone was used." (Note: In the 1960s, the proud McCormick and Farmall names were replaced by International.)
McCarthy, of Whitewater, said he collects historic farming items and bought the old umbrella at the 2011 "National Red Power Roundup" held in Albert Lea, MN.
The second (and main gym) was crammed with toy vendors offering most every kind of model farm toy one could imagine. Some are still in their original packages, many are lined up by size on the display tables, some are current models, and others go back many decades.
Vendors said that from 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m. the aisles were crowded shoulder to shoulder with lookers and buyers ranging from young children to 80-year-old grand dads. "It was as circus," one vendor says. "We really did a booming business in sales."
Claude Ebert, a long retired farmer from Columbus, bought two 1/16-scale model Farmall tractors: A Farmall 806 (early 1960s) and a Farmall M-TA (early 1950s). "We bought the original tractors for use on our farm," Ebert says. "We don't farm anymore, the land is rented out but we still have the tractors. These are models of those."
Tom Hooper, Palmyra, and his three young sons - Jonathan, Josiah and Samuel - were looking at matchbox size model cars. "I'm pastor at Oakwood Church in Hartland," Hooper says. "But, we still live on my home farm, my sons are the sixth generation to live on this land. We like to come to this show."
Toy model farm tractors have been around for nearly 100 years and in the mid-20th century became collector items for hobbyists who remembered the tractor that dad had or the toy tractor they played with as kids.
Most every former farm youth can remember the toy tractor they played with in a sandbox or dirt floor of a shed. How they plowed, planted and harvested imaginary crops for hours on end. They also remember leaving those farm toys - maybe in an old box - later junked when they grew older and went on to other things.
The model toy shows bring back happy memories of those long ago days when visitors see similar toys on display. It also brings a tinge of regret when we remember when we (or our mothers) threw our toys in the junk and now see similar ones on sale for hundreds of dollars.
Model farm toys are not all alike, one has a choice of sizes and many popular model toy tractors can be bought as 1/64-scale (3-4 inches long) up to 1/16-scale (8-10 inches long). Same for the accompany equipment such as plows, combines, spreaders and a host of other implements.
The modern era of die cast farm toys started with Fred Ertl, who forged his first tractor replica in 1945 in his basement in Dubuque, IA, from metal from surplus aluminum aircraft pistons. The company grew and in 1959 moved to Dyersville, IA, and became the biggest producer of die-cast metal alloy farm toy replicas.
The company was sold in 1968 and has since had several owners. In the mid-1990s the company moved part of its production to Mexico and some collectors now put a higher value on all-American made model toys produced before that time.
A youngster doesn't much care if the model tractor is the cheaper, less precise, partially plastic toy while the collector may prefer a more precision model made with extreme detail. (Note: Joe Ertl and his Scale Model company still operate at Dyersville producing U.S. made precision toys.)
Ertl remains the big name in model farm toys and every farm implement dealership offers a wide variety of their brand toys for sale with prices ranging from about $25 and up. Dyersville, IA, remains the farm toy capitol of the world and is home to the National Farm Toy Show and National Farm Toy Museum.
Farm toy shows are not all about toys. There is also farm memorabilia of many kinds including old farm business signs. One sign stood out, the Wittier Farm, Inc. farm sign offered by Roger Hansen, a vendor from Union, IL.
"I bought it from someone who found it on E-Bay ," Hansen says. "I don't know anything about it but thought it was rather unique."
I knew a bit about Wittier Farm, they operate a 300-cow registered Holstein herd and a year-round retail farm store at Sutton, MA, so I made a call to them.
"Yes," owner Wayne Whittier, says. "The sign disappeared from our driveway 25 years ago, we've long ago replaced it. Tell the vendor who is offering it for $400 that he's selling it too cheap, it's an antique."
The Whitewater Farm Toy Show is operated by the local FFA alumni and is one of many held across Wisconsin each winter drawing thousands of visitors who come to look, remember and maybe to buy.
Whitewater FFA Alumni Tim Reid and Tom Nielsen have been in charge of the event for many years. Steve Keil has been "paying the bills" for all 21 years of the show and Susan Burton heads the food committee. Backing this group is a host of FFA alumni and current FFA members.
Reid says the FFA members provide the labor to set up the tables and assist the many vendors set up and take down their displays. "We wouldn't be able to sponsor this show without the many alumni volunteers and students," Keil says.
Money is primarily used to support FFA activities. "Last year we provided $4000 for scholarships," Reid says.
Farm toy shows are indeed about the past for oldsters, making new memories for youngsters and having fun for all.
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.