Have you ever attended a model farm toy show?

John Oncken
Now Media Group

Probably not, unless you were lucky enough to have been invited by a friend, were in a high school where the FFA was involved in sponsoring one, had parents who took you to one on a rainy Sunday or heard about collecting model farm toys and sought one out.

There is at least one, and probably more, farm toy shows held every Sunday (sometimes on Saturday) across Wisconsin during the January through April show season.

What is a model farm toy show? It's a gathering, usually held in a school gym, where farm toy collectors exhibit their collections set up on tables for visitors (young and old) to look at and maybe buy.

Farm toy shows are all about memories. The serious collectors probably got started by buying a toy or two that reminded them of their days as a youngster on a farm.

It might be a model toy tractor just like the big one they learned on and farmed with decades ago. Perhaps it went on a shelf until the owner got "the disease" and added a plow, combine and maybe a corn picker, and gradually the basement is jammed with the collection.

It's a disease

Then a time may come when they want to show their collection to others and sell a few things, and they become a vendor at a farm toy show. "A farm toy collector is just a common person who let their memories get out of control," a farm toy collector once told me. "It's a disease that is contagious and spreads," another collector said.

I'm not a farm toy collector — actually I do have a model Allis Chalmers "B" that, yes, we had one on the farm — but I enjoy attending shows to talk with collectors and visitors. That's why I went to the 22nd annual farm toy show in Evansville last Saturday.

It wasn't a big show, partially because it was moved from Sunday (the next day) due to the Monroe show moving back a week due to the unavailability of the gym, resulting in two back-to-back shows.

"We also lost a number of exhibitors because of another shuffle in dates at a big Indiana show that moved to Saturday," explained Ron Buttchen, show chairman. "Hopefully the three shows will go back to their regular dates next year."

Voice from the past

As I walked the exhibit aisles, I heard a voice coming from someone hidden behind a stack of John Deere tractors say, "Hi John." At first I didn't recognize who it was until the man behind the voice introduced himself as Mark Vornholt from Neillsville.

"I knew you when you were Clark County extension agent and my dad Fred had a service station and before that an Allis Chalmers dealership," he explained. "My dad started exhibiting at farm toy shows 28 years ago ... when he died, my mother Marion and I took over."

Vornholt was an ag teacher in Marshfield for 25 years and now works at Chili Implement (in Chili).

"We exhibit at about 30 shows a year," he said. "Like most collectors, we make about enough money through toy sales to pay for our gas and show table fee. It's all about the fun of collecting toys and showing them off."

Meeting Mark and Marion Vornholt made my day by reminiscing about those long-ago days in my first real job as county agent and living in Neillsville. (I just remembered: Mark's dad sponsored my weekly radio program on WCCN radio in Neillsville for many years. I was proud to be about the only extension agent in the state to have radio sponsors as most such programs were considered public service. A belated thanks to the Vornholts.)

Collecting model farm toys goes back many years. The first commercially produced model farm toys were said to have been made by the Wilking Toy Co. in Keene New Hampshire 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 a wide variety of companies were making good model toys all the while.

Modern era dates to 1945

Die cast farm toys started with Fred Ertl, who forged his first aluminum tractor replica in 1945 in his basement in Dubuque, Iowa. The company grew, and in 1959, moved to Dyersville, Iowa, 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 in LaMoure, North Dakota, began to collect old farm toys. In 1976, Claire, who was becoming known for his collecting efforts, and a friend bought hundreds of surplus farm toys from the Ertl Company in Dyersville, Iowa, at a cheap price. He was also buying old toy inventories from farm equipment dealers.

Toy farmer

In 1978, the Scheibes published a six-page, black-and-white newsletter that soon grew into a magazine called "The Toy Farmer" that many now see as the real kick-start to making the farm toy collecting industry what it is today. The 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, Iowa, that continues today as the big event of the year.

As at many farm toy shows, the kids pedal tractor-pulling competition drew a big crowd as youngsters pedaled furiously to pull the "eliminator" (a small model of the machine used in tractor and horse pulling) the farthest. It's not always the biggest and strongest who wins.

A surprise

I was attracted by a miniature farmstead layout complete with barn, outbuildings, horses and farm equipment and was totally aghast when the owner of the display turned out to be Bill Rettenmund, Verona, one of my fellow bicycle riders during my days of long-distance biking. We had ridden thousands of miles together, and he never mentioned his interest in creating this huge farm display.

Rettenmund bought the 1901-style horse barn with animals and fencing in 1977 because of his farm heritage as a play toy for his children and a piece of art.

"I bought five Amish wood pieces and a few metal items and built 17 horse-drawn pieces, a truck, silo and seven buildings," he said. " I have four simulated grass cloths for tables, 10 feet of painted 12-inch wide road for two-way horse traffic, a black plowed field, a green hay field and a grain field, all with rustic horse-drawn equipment displayed in use. All are one-sixteenth scale."

The display is the best such I've ever seen; hopefully you will have a chance to see it at a future farm toy show (Rettenmund will exhibit at the Waunakee farm toy show April 10).

Indeed, farm toy shows are about reliving the past, learning things and having fun to create memories for the future.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at