Tiny toy tractors pull in collectors Howard resident stocks up on models

December 26, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Ed Smith never had many toys as a child. But he's turned a 10-by-12-foot guest bedroom in his house near Lisbon into a shrine for more than 1,000 toy tractors no bigger than 4 or 5 inches long and lighter than a brick.

"When I was a kid, tractors weren't something we had time to play with. They were big machines we had to use to make a living on the land," says Smith, 63, as he dusts a 1958 model of a red 400 International Farmall tractor worth more than $2,000. "We were a big family who was poor, and toys were a luxury.

"That's why I've got so many now," says the retired farmer. "Tractors are in my blood, so I've surrounded myself with them."

Smith is one of a growing number of Howard County residents who collect toy tractors. And many collectors say he may have the biggest collection in Howard County -- perhaps on the East Coast.

"Anytime there's a new collectors item or a new edition to a tractor that comes out, he's [Smith] the first guy on my doorstep, asking if I've got it before I've even heard of it," says Maurice Gladhill, owner of Gladhill Tractor Mart in Frederick, which sells about $50,000 worth of toy tractors a year. "He's one of the die-hards."

Enter the back bedroom of Smith's house on Long Corner Road and wall to wall, floor to ceiling, are rows of model tractors packed onto shelves.

Each has its own story. Smith calls the 1945 model of a John Deere "A" with a 2-cylinder engine "one of the best plowing tractors of its time." He bought the 1960s model of a 430 John Deere model from a junk man in Baltimore five years ago for $25. It's worth almost $1,000 now.

He found the red 400 International Farmall with the rare split rim -- a trademark of the 1958 tractor -- at a public auction. It's now worth about $800. He owns a gray 1020 McCormick Deering with 25 horsepower similar to the one he first drove in the 1940s.

The room is covered with miniature versions of full-sized tractors. The windows are barely visible. He says he once had so many tractors in the room that he had to shuffle backward to enter.

"Maybe I have gotten a bit carried away," says Smith. "But it sure is something I truly enjoy."

For most collectors, the miniature versions of the tractors bring nostalgia for their childhood.

"There's memories in each tractor you get from the days when you used to help your dad out," says Ron Cashdollar of Lisbon, who has about 20 toy tractors.

"You look at the green and yellow colors characteristic of a John Deere or the red of a Farmall and you can relate to it because it's something you grew up with.

"It's the same way someone may relate to a model of an old T-Bird or Mustang," he says. "For us old farmers, it's tractors we know best."

Over the years, toy collectors and manufacturer say the hobby of collecting model tractors has become more expensive as toys go from including stick-on decals of fenders and grills to intricate details of spark plugs, air cleaners, levers and even gas lines.

While most collectors are retired farmers in their 50s and older, a surprising number of newcomers -- most in their 20s and 30s -- are entering the market, as magazines such as Toy Farmer develop Web pages advertising toy tractors and toy shows across the country.

"People think collecting toy tractors is a joke or something old country farmers do, but it's just like the market for the New York Stock Exchange," says Claire Schiebe, president and CEO of Toy Tractor, a collectors' magazine based in LaMoure, N.D.

"A four-row cultivator to hitch onto a 630 John Deere can add a few hundred dollars to the value.

"That's no chump change."

Sometimes, the original box from a toy tractor yields as much as the model itself, collectors say. And the dingier it is, the better.

A collector paid as much as $12,800 for a custom-made 9700 John Deere combine toy at the annual National Farm Toy Show Auction in Dyersville, Iowa, known as the "mecca" of farm shows, Schiebe says.

Collectors say it's worth that price to have one of the old 1950 style 2-cylinder John Deeres sitting on their shelf.

"I've been a farmer all my life, and I've always been fascinated by tractors," says Pete Clark, 43, of Glenelg. "I figured if I can't afford to buy them all in the full-size, I might as well have the smaller ones."

In 10 years he's gathered a collection of more than 600 toys worth an estimated $10,000. The collection occupies 30 feet of shelf space in his basement. Few weeks go by where there's not a UPS package waiting for him on his front doorstep, he says.

"When you get a box of toys, you get this rush with each one because they just look so real -- like you could jump up on them and start them," he says, shining a 1945 International Farmall "Super M."

"It's like hitting the lottery.

"I call this place my fantasy room," Clark says, as he carefully checks each tractor. "I can sit down here just admiring the work and design of each tractor and let the pressure of everyday living and farming just roll away."

He adds: "I touch these, and it takes me back to the easy life of when I was a kid and all I ever wanted to do was drive a tractor. They're my passion."

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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