DYERSVILLE, Iowa — Some form of farm toy has been around since the dawn of civilization, but over the past 100+ years, makers have taken advantage of improving technology to create true art.
Doug Harke writes a monthly column for Toy Farmer magazine, and says farm toys began to become popular in the late 1800s and grew to the point where several companies made some form of toy.
By 1918 cast iron toys were being made by the Arcade Manufacturing Company based in Freeport, Illinois.
“Arcade made an Avery tractor out of cast iron,” says Harke.
According to information from the Arcade Toy Museum, Arcade really started focusing on developing its line of toys in 1921, and subsequently manufactured many different toys.
“Arcade was really the dominant toymaker at the turn of the 20th century,” says Harke, adding that this included licensing all International Harvester toys.
He says other manufacturers were also involved in making farm toys. Arcade remained the dominant company until World War II. Harke says that no metal farm toys were made during the war due to rubber and metal shortages.
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“Arcade left the toy market when they were called upon to make parts for the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” says Harke.
Various farm machinery companies had licensing agreements with other manufacturers, including John Deere, Oliver, and McCormick Deering.
Harke says a new line of resin developed during World War II helped manufacturers develop a type of plastic that could be used in farm toys. The Product Miniature Company, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began producing the plastic Farmall M model, and by the end of 1947 Harke says 2 million tractors had been sold.
The farm toy market welcomed a new player in 1945 when Fred Ertl started making toy tractors in the oven of his home in Dubuque, Iowa. Ertl was a journeyman moulder at Adams Company in Dubuque which was temporarily closed due to a strike.
Ertl began taking faulty aluminum airplane pistons and began melting them down. He used sand molds for aluminum and started making toy tractors.
“These were really the first toys that looked like real tractors,” says Bill Walters, senior vice president of the TOMY toy company. Walters, a native of Dyersville, is responsible for the Ertl brand along with TOMY.
Walters says the first tractor Ertl made was an Allis-Chalmers WC model. Ertl eventually met with representatives of John Deere and received permission to produce toy tractors bearing the company name. The first Deere tractor produced by Ertl was the Model A, manufactured in 1952.
“Deere saw the benefit of having these toys,” Walters says.
Eventually, Ertl moved to a larger factory in Dyersville in 1959. The Ertl family sold the business in 1977, but through subsequent sales, the Ertl brand remained the dominant player in farm toy manufacturing.
“Over the years, the manufacturing has become more sophisticated,” says Walters. “Now we get real engineering data from companies. We have developed a tooling model that allows us to have it checked before starting the process. We have good business relationships.
Both Walters and Harke have been inducted into the National Farm Toy Hall of Fame.
Walters says farm toys remain very popular with children and collectors. This includes both die-cast and plastic toys, as well as current and vintage brands.
“There are still millions of farm kids around the world who love to play with toy tractors and other equipment,” he says. “And there are kids in the city who see construction equipment all the time and like to play with those toys.
“As long as we have carpet producers like them, farm toys will remain very popular. We see a very bright future for this hobby and this industry.