Farm toys: fun and more for kids of all ages

John Oncken

"I try to come to this model farm toy show every year,” John Mason, Whitewater area semi-retired farmer said.  “I look for new things to add to my collections and to see what is selling these days.”

I ran into Mason or rather, he as a regular reader of this column approached me at the Whitewater FFA Alumni 28th Annual Farm Toy Show last Sunday at Whitewater High School. One of the two gymnasiums (the main gym) was filled with table after table of model farm toys (about 60 vendors) offering most every kind of model farm toy one could imagine. Some (both new and old) 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 and may not have been actually produced as actual operating farm tractors for many decades.  

John Mason has a 1935 Deere B bought for $600.

$600 John Deere

“I have a 1935 John Deere “Model B” tractor that my dad bought in 1936,” Mason says.  “I also have the original bill of sale: It had a mower and a two row cultivator cost that $600. It came with steel wheels but my dad added rubber tires in 1936.

Yes, it still runs. I had it completely restored and take it to the Rock River Thresheree every year and have it on display. I also have several other restored tractors at the farm,” he said.

Mason said the cows left the farm decades ago but he and his son, Steve, raise organic corn, soybeans and a few other crops on their 140 acres. “You know there is a big demand and good prices for organic feed crops these days even though the price of organic milk has declined, ”Mason explained.

Mason’s story of still owning an original farm tractor is not unusual — learning how to drive a tractor is something every farm boy or girl always remembers. I’d guess farm kids, of years gone by, watched their dads drive the big equipment, heard the noise, watched the combining and the plowing and couldn’t wait for the day they could be in the driver’s seat. 

My first 

I well remember first driving the old Farmall Regular at maybe 10 - 12 years of age and my sense of power as the soil turned or the disc created new black soil that had lain fallow all winter. Later my dad added a couple of Allis Chalmers and a small Ford but it was that first tractor that took me from childhood to young farmer.  

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Although I left the family farm after college, and have driven a tractor only a few times since, that first tractor is still one of my unforgettable memories of growing up on the farm. And, I’d bet many of the attendees at the Whitewater Model Farm Toy Show would cite similar experiences and memories of their long gone days of growing up on the farm and for a few brief hours can refresh those days by looking at the farm equipment that they grew up with.  And, that’s not all bad.

Still like toys  

As at all such events, youngsters were aplenty — perhaps listening to their parents recall days gone by and at the same time looking at the awesome toy display. Even though computers and cell phones may be the toys of choice nowadays, several parents said their children still like to play with farm toys as they hear the vroom- vroom of kids voices as they run the little toys across the kitchen floor.  

Vendors said that from 9:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m. the aisles were crowded shoulder to shoulder with lookers and buyers ranging from the very young children in strollers to 80 plus year old granddads. Unlike some shows, this one had lunch available and people did stop for a Sunday sandwich.   

Also, unlike any other farm toy show I’ve attended, this one has two adjoining gyms. The second and a bit smaller space was home to about 15 farmstead displays. Some were big and elaborate, most all had the creators seated or standing nearby. Elaborate layouts of farmsteads, covering from one to maybe a half dozen 4x8-foot tables, complete with livestock, buildings and machinery were there for the looking.

I’m sure each of the displays has a story. Each was the result of family memories and a lot of hard work and in some cases many years of labor. Some are the result of family  involvement. One covered maybe 10 tables (that's some 300 square feet) with silos, grain bins, trucks and about every conceivable type of farm equipment. I shudder to think of the job setting up and packing away so much for a five-hour display. 

“I guess I’m just a kid that never grew up, “ one creator said. “I still love to play  with toys.”

The Josh and Ellen Kelnhofer family, from Harvard, Illinois, took a day off.

A day off

Josh and Ellen Kelnhofer, from Harvard, Illinois, brought their three boys, Kurt, Brett and Jacob to the toy show.  “This is a day off for us,” Josh says. “We enjoy looking around and may add a toy or two to go with those we have from my childhood. The boys love to play  with them.”         

“Are you John Oncken?” a lady walking the rows of displays asked. 

I admitted that was a fact and she said she (Jean) and her husband, John Warren, were regular Wisconsin State Farmer readers but that she was also the daughter of Elmore Schullenburg, who farmed north of Sun Prairie, and who sold me the lot where my wife and I built our house decades ago. 

”I don’t know that we ever met,” she said. “But I knew you from afar."

Again, I realize that it is indeed a small world. 

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 also can bring 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.  

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, which didn’t work out because of poor quality, and then to China. Collectors now put a higher value on all-American or quality made model toys produced wherever.  

Many folks, especially youngsters probably don'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. Ertl remains a 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.   

Steve Keil, left, and Tom Nielsen, FFA alumni welcomed visitors.

It’s the FFA alumni

The Whitewater Farm Toy Show is hosted 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 Tom Nielsen and Steve Keil who were manning the registration desk explained that the FFA alumni provide funds for many activities, scholarships and programs for current FFA members. Of course, current FFA members provide the labor to set up the tables and assist the many vendors with set up and take down of their displays.      

Farm toy shows are indeed about the past for oldsters, making new memories for youngsters and having fun for all. What about the future?   

Curt Pernat, long time farm toy collector and vendor from Ixonia, has seen increased interest and attendance in recent months. Toys from the 70’s and 80’s  are becoming more popular as the older toys fade into history, he says. “I’m really not sure what the long term future holds.”        

Who knows — for now the memories are strong and toys are still played with. Attend a farm toy show. You’ll enjoy it.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communication sand can be reached at 608-572-0747 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.