It's the farm model toy show season!

John Oncken

“Did I hear you say  that you were considering attending a model farm toy show, my friend asked? What do you mean, I never heard of such a thing? Are you serious?"

The answers were: yes, too bad and yes.

John Deeres and more John Deeres are offered by Mark Vornholt at “The Collectors Shelf.”

At the time I was pondering a visit to a model farm show scheduled for last Sunday in Westfield (which I went to). I also told my friend that she was not alone in never attending or even ever hearing about a model farm toy show and that, indeed, such shows are rather common across the state and nationwide.

In fact, over recent years I’ve attended such shows at Evansville, Whitewater, Johnson Creek, Darlington, Verona and Sauk Prairie. And I hope to visit more in coming years.  Most likely there is probably at least one or more farm toy show held every Sunday (sometimes on Saturday) across Wisconsin during the January through April show season.

A special gathering

What is a model farm toy show? It's a gathering, usually held in a school gym, where farm toy collectors (vendors) exhibit their collections set up on tables for visitors (young and old) to look at and maybe buy. The model farm toys are exact replicas of farm equipment from tractors to combines to plows to actually every piece of farm equipment ever made.

A handbuilt Case combine. Handbuilt and custom built toys have become popular.

Although there were earlier efforts to popularize model farm toys it was Fred Ertl Sr., a laid off foundry worker at Dubuque, Iowa, who fashioned (in his basement in 1945) an aluminum John Deere Model A tractor for his son, Joe.

The right time

His timing was perfect. It was just after World War II and farming was going through its industrial revolution as tractors replaced horses and technology was growing by leaps and bounds. Ertl made more toys and his business boomed and was moved to Dyersville, Iowa, in 1959 where it eventually evolved into the huge Ertl Co that has dominated the model farm toy business ever since. Fred Ertl Sr. is generally acclaimed as “the father of the modern farm toy hobby."

It’s memories

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. “Learning to drive the tractor” is something that most every farm kid remembers—it’s a rite of passage—and you never forget that tractor. That memory is behind the popularity of the many antique farm equipment shows in the summer and the model farm toy shows held during the winter.

Vendor John Morfeld, Columbus, is in just his second year as an exhibitor at toy shows.

A disease? Maybe

Many call collecting farm toys a disease that often starts with the urge to have a toy model of that “first tractor” for your mantle or shelf. Perhaps you then add a plow, combine, a corn picker and more tractors. Gradually you notice that the basement is jammed with the collection and you get the urge to show your collection at farm shows for others to see and enjoy. That’s when you realize you’ve got “the disease” but you  continue to collect and enjoy talking with others at shows.

The second year

The Westfield Farm Toy Show is unique in that it is sponsored by the Newton Township Volunteer Fire Department and this was only their second show. (Note: Many toy shows are 30 or more years old and sponsored by the local FFAs.) Nick Peschel, a plumber by trade and volunteer fireman by choice explains there are about 15 active volunteer firemen but surrounding townships and the city of Westfield Fire Department work together if needed.

A long trip and much work

Vendors from as far away as Neillsville, Wisconsin, Rochester, Minnesota, and from closer by set up their displays in early morning—it can take a couple of hours to unload, carry in, unbox and set up the toys. And then they wait for the lookers and buyers of which there were relatively few this day.

Lindsay and Kyle Kurt were looking at John Deere toy  tractors. They milk 70 cows at Dane and Lindsay is also a Madison firefighter.

A dairyman

Kyle and Lindsay Kurt who milk 70 cows at Dane. Wisconsin, were wandering the aisles of displays looking at 1/16 scale John Deere models. “I’m not a big collector,” Kyle says. “But he could be if he had the chance,” Lindsay added with a smile.

I had to ask the dairy farmer his thoughts about the gloomy dairy scene. “I only own 40 acres," Kyle says, "but farm about 500 acres. I’m the small dairy in the area of mega dairies and I get manure from nearby Ripp Valley Dairy who are a part of the community digester and always have extra.”

Kyle says he's never been in favor of milk production quotas, "But what are we (dairy producers) going to do? The big dairies keep expanding and the smaller ones are getting out. I just don’t know.”

A Madison couple were busy looking at model tractors. “We were in the area and saw the toy show sign," Donna said. “We own a small hobby farm and have a gray tractor (a Ford) and are hoping to find a similar model toy to buy.”

Bruce and Donna Wallbaum, Madison were looking for gray  (Ford) model toys.

Jeff Mijal, of Stevens Point, was at the show both as a vendor and buyer. “I collect model cars—the kind you buy as a kit—and looking to buy some model cars that needed repair or that I could use for parts. I also brought a few farm toys that I’d like to sell."

Gail and Barry Vande Brink,  offer a wide variety of model farm toys.

A big exhibitor

Barry and Gail Vande Brink had what appeared to be the biggest model toy display, eight tables.That’s 64 feet of exhibits—a lot of toys and a lot of work getting in and getting out of the show.

“We got here early,” Donna said. “Everything is packed and hauled in banana boxes— they fit together so well and are just the right size for loading into trucks and trailers. It takes us about two hours to pack up and load our trailer. We attend about 10 shows a year and no, we aren’t retired. We own Vande Brink Construction, a home building company in Ripon."

Started years ago

Barry Vande Brink says he got started collecting farm toys years ago and continued as his children grew up and now grandchildren. “It sort of got out of hand,” he admits. “Some people call it a disease, maybe so but it’s a lot of fun.

“We have an even bigger display at the big shows. For instance, the show at Ripon on March 18th is one of the biggest such events in the state with over 300 tables of exhibits and between 1800 to 2200 people attending," he added.

Gail Vande Brink says banana boxes are used to box toys by most model toy vendors.

Mark Vornholt and his “Collectors Shelf", another big vendor made the trip from Neillsville, one of 25-30 such shows he attends each year. And, like other vendors who faced the small crowd and resulting relatively few sales wasn’t dismayed. “We made some sales and it’s “It’s only their second year, they’ll grow.”

If you have never attended a model farm toy show, maybe you should. Yes, it’s about collecting but for older folks it’s about memories accrued when growing up and working on granddads farm, the home farm or maybe a friend's farm or on a neighbors neighbor's place.

It’s also a place where you can talk with people who love to talk and make new friends and eat a hot dog and drink a pop. And the admission is usually $2 or $3 for adults.  Where else can you go for that price?

Farm toy shows are also where you can spend an hour or two away from your TV and computer and just enjoy being with your children, grandchildren and family. And there's the remembering.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at