Tips of the Trade
Down on the Farm: Collecting Toy Tractors
Noel Barrett and host Lara Spencer talk toy tractors.
This Allis Chalmers toy tractor is worth about $250.
This die-cast aluminum tractor is worth $450.
This 1900 tin tractor sign is worth about $1,200.
When it comes to collecting toys in the field of Things That Roll, it's often the model trains, toy automobiles and fire trucks that get most of the attention. Usually overlooked is a collectible toy of choice for Americans who grew up on farms all over the country: the toy farm tractor.
More on collecting toy tractors—childhood favorites from America's heartland
"For a lot of Americans, these toys are nostalgic reminders of their youth," says Noel Barrett, an expert on toys and owner of Antiques & Auctions in Carversville, Pennsylvania. "When the family farms they grew up on started dieing out, people started collecting farm-related stuff, and that included toy tractors." We asked for a few suggestions on how someone might begin to collect these symbols of America's rural past from Noel, who did an episode on toy tractors for the Omaha ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. We also spoke with Annie Reitzler, manager of the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa, which has over 30,000 farm toys in its collection.
Here's what they told us.
An Accessible Field
One advantage to collecting toy tractors, Noel points out, is that there are fewer collectors hunting them down, compared to those searching out toy cars and trains. Another plus is that these toys, as well as related toy farm equipment—such as wagons and plows—are readily available.
"Tractors were always part of the toy manufacturers' lines," Noel says. "Once real tractors were being built, the toy manufacturers followed suit very quickly." Most of the tractors manufactured before World War II were made of cast iron or the much lighter lithographed tin. Some of the classic manufacturers from this era are Weeden Manufacturing Company, the German manufacturer Marklin, and Vindex. The classic toy car manufacturers from the pre-WWII era, such as Arcade and Hubley, also had lines of toy tractors. After World War II, the tractors, like their cousins, toy cars and trains, were made of aluminum and then plastic. You can buy most of these vintage toy tractors for between $75 to $200 today.
One of the first suggestions that Annie Reitzler makes to interested collectors is to pick up the magazine called Toy Farmer, which is the long-standing bible in the field of toy tractors. "It's full of stories about people who collect toy tractors," Annie says, "and it gives you a lot of names of experts who can help you if you're trying to locate a toy or get more information about something you own." Noel adds that the field also has its share of price guides—another way to get a feel for what's out there and what it costs.
The Farm Toy Museum also has two of the largest farm toy shows in the country each year, held from June 3-5 and from November 4-6. The non-profit museum is located in Dyersville, Iowa, a place sometimes referred to as the "farm toy capital of the world." That's because the town is the corporate headquarters for the toy manufacturer ERTL, and also the home to two other companies that are still manufacturing toy farm equipment: SpecCast and Scale Models.
"Our shows are definitely places to meet knowledgeable collectors and if you want, to find something you've been looking for," she says. But if you're not a day's travel from Dyersville, Iowa, she says you can use the online message board that the museum provides for toy collectors who have questions. Noel also suggests attending local toy shows or auctions, which usually have a selection of toy tractors.
Subspecialties in the Field
Toy tractors are still being made today by companies such as ERTL and John Deere, and according to Noel, the "details on these are absolutely extraordinary." And yet Noel doesn't expect that these will be very good investments.
"You can enjoy these but I don't think they're going to appreciate greatly in value, because they're usually kept on shelves," says Noel, who notes that you can get them for new for about $40 or $50. "They're not getting trashed by children, so there will be an awful lot of them down the road." Noel suggests that those who are more serious about collecting should consider spending another $100 or $150 to purchase a real antique toy tractor.
There are also subspecialties in the toy tractor field. Annie says that some collectors are on a mission to find the packaging that toy tractors were originally sold with, which is often harder to find than the tractor itself. Some collectors, usually those who have more room in their homes and garages, collect the pedal tractors. These are the ones that were meant to be driven by children down the driveway or on sidewalks. Annie likes to collect gold-plated toy tractors, which were promotional tractors made in small batches starting in the 1970s.
One of the things Annie likes about the field is how down-on-the-farm it is. "This is a small group of people collecting toy tractors," she says. "There's a lot of camaraderie in the field. You can make a lot of friends."
For more on toy tractors Dean Failey recommends:
Warman's Jewelry, by Christie Romero, 1998.
National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.