Tractor beam: Childhood memories often draw collectors to farm toys

Ask 10 farm toy collectors what they collect and you’re likely to get 10 different answers – ask 100 and don’t be surprised if there are 100 unique answers. No other branch of the toy-collecting hobby allows for as much diversity and individuality as farm toy collecting. And toy farmers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Farm toy collectors are united by a dedication to this hobby no matter what their collecting pursuits. But with so many possibilities and more than 100 years worth of farm toys to choose from, what makes all of these toys collectible today? Nostalgia. Although experienced collectors appreciate the craftsmanship and mechanical engineering that qualifies many early farm toys as works of art, collectors are most often driven by the simple remembrances of childhood’s carefree times.

Nostalgia develops at its own pace for each generation, and while we gravitate towards the toys of our youths, we also appreciate the artistry of toys from eras other than our own. This appreciation ensures a long life for the farm toy collecting hobby, no matter what types of toys one prefers.

Farm toy stories

Ask 10 farm toy collectors how they got started in this hobby, and you’re likely to get 10 similar answers.

Sure, I had coffee cans filled with plastic farm animals and fence pieces that never quite fit together, but when I think back to my earliest experiences with farm toys, I find myself remembering the people that made the toys special.

There weren’t many toys at my grandparents’ house, except for a few in a box downstairs in their basement. The plastic toys had belonged to my dad when he was a boy, and my sister and I spent hours playing with a Farmall tractor and wagon with McCormick-Deering decals.

Dad explained that the tractor (a Farmall M) and wagon were made by Product Miniatures and were Christmas presents he received in 1948. In those days, his older brother worked for International Harvester and the replicas were available for purchase by employees. So my dad’s first tractor became my first tractor, and now it sits on display in his toy collection.

Talking to the collectors within this community is easily one of the best benefits of membership. So I asked some fellow collectors to share their favorite childhood toy farming memories and for their interpretations of what motivates today’s collectors.

Al Van Kley of Van Kley Farm Toys in Ankeny, Iowa, explained why the Farmall B has a special significance. “I grew up on a B Farmall and spent many hours on that B cultivating, mowing, plowing, raking hay, driving on a binder, pulling the bundle rack, and doing other farming operations when I was between the ages of 7 and 15,” he said. “It is still my favorite tractor 55 years later!

Dave Bell, president of SpecCast Collectibles in Dyersville, Iowa, also has fond memories of the Farmall B. “For me personally, the farm toys that bring back memories of the farm I grew up on are the Farmall B and H replicas, as they were the first two tractors that I can remember driving,” he said. “When I see them, they bring back the great memories of driving them and the great fun it was growing up on my father’s farm.”

Bill Walters, managing director of Ag & Off-Road for the RC2 Corp., with corporate  headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., offered some of his childhood favorites. “When I was young, I had an older sister that worked at Ertl,” he said. “Needless to say, I was blessed with Ertl tractors. I vividly remember the AC200 puller tractor with the stacks. I also remember an IH tractor with cab, flatbed trailer, and many others. I also remember trying to bale grass in the yard.”

Pedal tractors grace the memories of many collectors, and Walters still has the pedal tractor that he enjoyed as a child. “It is a Ford 6000 Commander. It’s now restored and in my basement.”

Farm toy dealer Kate Bossen of Bossen Implement in Lamont, Iowa, said she enjoyed a childhood filled with farm toys and fond memories. “Growing up in the city, I did not know the different brands of farm equipment, but I still played with my tin barn and Auburn rubber tractors and animals,” she said. “I also took all the animals that came with the Lionel train set, which did not make me very popular with my brothers. I had farms in the sandbox and as I got older, I commandeered the Ping-Pong table for my farm layout using Matchbox vehicles. I had all the farm vehicles that Matchbox put out and built buildings out of old show boxes, and yes, I had the standard Quaker Oats silo.”

Collectors vividly understand that original equipment manufacturers inspire considerable collecting loyalty. Dennis Miesner, publisher of Red Power magazine, has been collecting since he was 4 years old. “People are proud of their past, and I find it fascinating that there are as many reasons for collecting as there are methods,” he said. “It seems to me that collecting small tractors is closely related to the real thing. People often don’t have room for the real things, so the small tractors serve as a reminder of their favorites.”

Chad Elmore, publisher of Belt Pulley magazine shared his perspectives. “Farm equipment manufacturers enjoy a tremendous amount of brand loyalty from their customers,” he said. “Many farmers still work with the brand of tractor their father or grandfather got when they traded off the horses. Some remember important dates in their careers by what model of tractor they were using at the time. This loyalty might be due to a local dealer who always treated them right. Toy collectors often start off buying the model tractor that they remember being used on the farm, and then branch out into machines they ‘wished dad could have afforded’ until they have a full-fledged collection of equipment.”

Despite the amazing diversity within the hobby, nostalgia unites us all and reminds us that it is the people in this hobby that make it special. That reminds me, I haven’t talked to dad in a few days – think I’ll ask him to tell me the story of that Farmall M again.

Horse Drawn

Today, when we think of “horse power” and “vehicle” in the same sentence, chances are good that we’ll conjure an image of a sleek sports car scorching its way through a curvy stretch of deserted  highway. But to people of the 19th century, “horse power” literally meant the working abilities of one or more horses, and a “vehicle” was a wheeled conveyance, likely a type of carriage or wagon pulled behind that horse or horses. While it’s tempting to suppose that the vehicles of yesterday and today have nothing in common, one vibrant common bond stretches across the years – playthings.

Turning vehicles into playthings is a time-honored tradition perfected by the mass-production capabilities forged in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Just as modern vehicles miniaturized in die-cast and plastic are the playthings for today’s children, their 19th century equivalents were captured in cast-iron, wood and tin. The more popular and widely produced of these are horse-drawn toys.

Horse-drawn cast-iron pieces generally command the highest prices in this category. One reason the eye-opening prices is that horse-drawn cast-iron toys have considerable value apart from their lure as toys. There  is an air of pure Americana about them, and they are likely to attract the interest of many who otherwise pay no attention to toys, including antique collectors and interior decorators following the current trend to design with genuine antiques.

Reproduction alert: Because prices are often high, reproductions, whether honest or dishonest, can be a problem in collecting this category. Things to look for when a reproduction is suspected include a rougher surface than any old toy would have (recastings are invariably rougher), uneven fit of pieces, a blurring of details and “aging” that doesn’t have the patina of age. Since at least one company, John Wright (formerly Grey Iron), is still manufacturing turn-of-the-century horse-drawn vehicles – some of them from original molds – it is wise to become familiar with the field before investing heavily.


Fisher-Price has created approximately 5,000 different toys since the early 1930s. One of Fisher-Price’s best-known lines is Little People toys, which includes people and animal figures along with various play sets such as a house, farm, school, garage and vehicles. The figures, which originally were wooden peg-style characters, are now molded of plastic and have detailed features.

The most important factor to consider when assessing the value of a Fisher-Price toy is paper lithography. Toys will be found with different degrees of edge wear.

Some of the most valuable Fisher-Price farm toys include: Horse-drawn “General Hauling No. 733, $330; Katy Kackler, No. 140, $175 (chicken’s wings and feet move up and down and she clucks); and Ferdinand the Bull, No. 434, $1,200.