FFA Farm Toy Shows are A Time-Honored Tradition
“The Greatest Show on Earth” is an expression usually associated with a three-ring circus, but for many people—especially those whose lives are connected in any way to the agriculture industry—no show could be more dazzling than one of the many FFA Farm Toy Shows held throughout the state.
Typically sponsored by local FFA alumni organizations, these toy shows are filled with displays of miniature farm equipment from every era and manufacturer imaginable, and at every possible scale. Among the tables of agriculture machinery might be displays of toy farm animals, stacks of farm-related games, and books of classic children’s stories. With vendors from all over the region displaying and selling so many different items, an FFA Farm Toy Show is a collector’s dream.
“Every one obviously is a little different,” said Dave Clausen of Amery, representative of Section 1 of the Wisconsin FFA Alumni Association. “You’ll have some guys selling brand-new farm toys, some selling vintage farm toys, some shows will have displays of whole farm scenes, and the 3D-printed displays are getting big. There’s a wide variety of things to see. And some guys will be selling cars and trucks in addition to the farm toys.”
Some shows are held in conjunction with pancake breakfasts, many include tables of farm-related craft items, and others offer fun activities such as pedal tractor pulls for young guests. What these individual shows have in common is that they’re all held in support of local FFA activities. Clausen said proceeds are used, for example, to cover travel expenses for FFA students traveling to the state and national conventions, or to purchase FFA jackets.
These FFA fund-raising staples are held at different times throughout the year, but many are held during the winter months (see page 26 for Farm Toy Shows in February and March).
Farm Toy Central
Helping to account for the wealth of agriculture toys on display at most FFA Farm Toy Shows in Wisconsin is the state’s location in proximity to Ertl, which was the biggest manufacturer of die-cast metal toys until it was acquired by another company a little over 20 years ago. Starting in 1945, Ertl produced farm toys for industry brands such as John Deere, Case, International, Case IH, Oliver, New Holland, Allis-Chalmers, and AGCO.
“We’re really fortunate because Ertl was such a dominant force and it’s in Dyersville, Iowa. It’s real close—it’s actually within driving distance,” said Steve Freese, CEO of the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) and a collector of farm toys himself. “And the National Toy Museum is there, and then the antique store right next door has a second floor that’s entirely die-cast toys, with every model, every size.”
Among Freese’s own collection is a model One Ninety XT Allis-Chalmers tractor, made by Ertl, that he got for Christmas when he was 7 years old (pictured on the front cover of this magazine).
“It was the most modern tractor Allis-Chalmers made at the time,” Freese said. “My Dad picked it out for me, and I wore it out. The paint was gone, the tires were bald—everything. He had a friend who worked at Ertl down at Dyersville, and he restored it. So that’s a completely restored tractor, restored by the company that actually made it originally.”
It was Freese’s first—and only—toy tractor. By the time it was fully restored, Freese was old enough to recognize that his beloved tractor was special enough to be taken out of the toy rotation and elevated to collector status.
That special One Ninety XT would not remain Freese’s only model tractor. Today, a collection of different agriculture vehicles and implements, including that initial Allis-Chalmers, lines a shelf around his office at WECA’s headquarters in Madison. Some he inherited from his father, who was also a farm toy collector. Others are items he purchased at the auctions held annually in support of Action Committee for Rural Electrification (ACRE), the political action committee that supports political candidates who protect the interests of electric co-ops. Still others are pieces he picked up at various FFA Farm Toy Shows.
Like many collectors, Freese focuses on a specific manufacturer. Some collectors choose their brand simply out of personal preference, perhaps preferring the green John Deere models over the red Massy Fergussons. Others, like Freese, collect certain makes due to nostalgia and family history. All of Freese’s toy farm vehicles are Allis-Chalmers models, with their distinctive Persian orange color.
“The only tractors we had on the farm were Allis-Chalmers,” he explained, pointing to a D14 model. “I spent a lot of time on that tractor when I was a kid. Dad bought it new in 1958, we still have it on the farm. We use it regularly on the farm.”
The D14 model on Freese’s shelf even reflects a specific incident involving the tractor that Steve recalled from his childhood. He explained that his family’s tractor had a blade on the back of it for snowplowing, and after a fierce snowstorm his father took the tractor to a neighbor’s home to clear the driveway and got hit by a car on the way home.
“The tractor flew 200 feet from the point of impact,” Freese said. “Dad went about 50 feet into the snowbank. He didn’t get hurt, but it broke both back wheels of the tractor. So the tractor should be all orange but the back wheels are white because that was the new color scheme that Allis-Chalmers went with.”
Another piece in Freese’s collection is a Model G, made for garden farmers. “It’s the only tractor Allis-Chalmers made with the engine in the rear end,” Freese added.
He also has a D14 model with a New Idea hay mower, distinctive because the tractor ran on LP gas, with the gas tank up front instead of in the rear. There’s also a 6080 model, one of the last Allis-Chalmers tractor the company made before divestitures transformed the company into Allis-Chalmers Energy and AGCO. And there’s a 9815 AGCO model that Steve’s son, Andrew, got when he was about 7, the same age as Steve when he got his One Ninety XT.
Memories and More
Freese is not unusual among collectors in that most of his toy farm pieces have some kind of personal significance for him. Wander around any FFA Farm Toy Show and you’re likely to overhear collectors fondly recalling a certain type of equipment that their grandfather used, or remarking on a toy that was a childhood favorite. Often you’ll see generations of families taking in a show together, sharing stories about the various pieces on display.
It’s these memories, more than the multitude of models, that make an FFA Farm Toy Show more than just a time-honored tradition. It may not, by definition, be the Greatest Show on Earth, but one could surely argue that an FFA Farm Toy Show is the Greatest Show in Rural Wisconsin.—Mary Erickson