Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Where the men & boys shop: At a rural Minnesota farm toy show January 31, 2013

OH, TO BE A FARM KID again, steering toy tractors through imaginary fields, corralling cattle into a replica barn, pretending to be a farmer just like Dad.

A trio of brothers dressed in John Deere attired waited while their dad signed up for a Massey Harris tractor raffle from Rice County Steam & Gas Engines, Inc.

A trio of brothers dressed in John Deere attire wait while their dad signs up for a Massey Harris tractor raffle from Rice County Steam & Gas Engines, Inc. The youngest was camera shy.

I imagine many of the kids tagging along with Grandpa or Dad to Louie’s Toy Box Farm Toy Show at the Nicollet County Fairgrounds in St. Peter last weekend were farm kids wishing for a new toy tractor or other piece of farm equipment to role-play their futures, or their ancestral pasts.

Masses of shoppers among a mass of merchandise.

Masses of shoppers among a mass of merchandise.

Shouldering my way through packed aisles Saturday morning, I couldn’t determine who seemed more excited—the men or the boys. And they had every reason to thrill in the mass of ag-related merchandise displayed by 43 vendors from Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

Johnson Hall, site of Louies' Toy Box Farm Toy Show.

Johnson Hall, site of Louie’s Toy Box Farm Toy Show.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I entered the unassuming pole-shed style Johnson Hall at the fairgrounds. But I didn’t expect to find so many people (an estimated 2,000 weekend attendees), so many vendors and so much merchandise crammed into such a tight space. This venue is definitely too uncomfortably small for a toy show of this size.

Vending John Deere toy tractors.

Vending toy John Deere tractors.

That aside, I managed to wiggle my way through mostly throngs of men sporting caps and sweatshirts advertising ag companies. John Deere, which marked its 175th anniversary in 2012, showed a dominating presence in apparel.

But when it came to merchandise, I expect every line was represented.

My first look at the farm toy show left me feeling overwhelmed.

My first look at the farm toy show left me feeling overwhelmed.

Upon first entering the toy show, I just stood there, overwhelmed by the stacks and stacks and stacks of boxed tractors and other toys stretching out before me. Honestly, I thought I’d made a mistake suggesting to my husband that we come here. I may have played with toy farm equipment as a kid, but it doesn’t especially interest me as an adult.

Maneuvering the aisles proved challenging.

Maneuvering the aisles proved challenging, especially with a camera bag on my hip and a camera in hand.

I wandered for awhile like a lost sheep, wondering where to focus, how to best work my way through the crowd. Arrows taped to the floor to direct traffic flow would have helped. But eventually I figured it out and backtracked the other direction, easing into the line of shoppers (which did include some women and girls).

An edited photo of vintage matchbooks. Love those graphics.

An edited photo of vintage matchbooks. Love those graphics.

Another edited photo, of a 1950 calendar.

Another edited photo, of a 1950 calendar.

Eventually I found my niche, not in the toys, but in graphics gracing vintage matchbooks, calendars, literature and other advertising items. When I examined a 1950s vintage calendar and balked aloud at the $98 price tag, the vendor informed me that 10 years ago he would have asked even more. I couldn’t bring myself to shell out that kind of money or even $10 for a teeny tiny matchbook. I’d need to be a serious collector to justify such expenditures.

Shortly thereafter I met a serious collector, Wendell Bakker of Renville, whom I observed filing through stacks of magazines, about a half-dozen notebooks stuffed in a back pants pocket and another open notebook in his hand. Because I’m nosy, and I admitted that to Wendell, I initiated a conversation. This former crop, dairy and hog farmer and recently-retired field rep for the Minnesota Farmers Union has been collecting issues of the Allis Chalmers Landhandler and other farm magazines for 50 years.

One of Wendell's notebooks, noting which magazines he already has in his collection.

One of Wendell’s notebooks, noting which magazines he already has in his collection.

“Everybody has a bad habit,” Wendell surmised, not that I would term collecting magazines a bad habit.

I didn’t question any of the other shoppers about their reasons for attending the farm toy show. But, based on the bulging bags most carried out of Johnson Hall, I’d guess many are collectors. As for me, I didn’t purchase anything, just added 94 images to my photo collection in 1 ½ hours. Total cost: the $3 admittance fee.


Toys, sign

A vendor’s sign.

A vendor in training.

A vendor in training.

I don't smoke and don't like smoking. But I sure do I like vintage ash trays like this one from my husband's birthplace.

I don’t smoke and don’t like smoking. But I sure do I like vintage ash trays like this one from my husband’s town of birth.

We were tempted to buy this lighter from Faribault, for a business we'd not heard of, but the $18 price was more than we wanted to pay.

We were tempted to buy this lighter from Faribault, for a business we’d not heard of, but the $18 price was more than we wanted to pay.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about show organizer, Louie’s Toy Box, click here.

Check back for more photos from the toy show.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


23 Responses to “Where the men & boys shop: At a rural Minnesota farm toy show”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    It does look overwhelming!!! I kind of felt that way when we went to the Fox River Sock Sale—so many tables with so many socks!!!! And so many people!!!! You got some great pictures!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      A sock sale? Now there must be a story behind this. Pray tell.

      I’m surprised I managed to get any decent photos given the crowd and constant jostling. I had to get creative. In the second crowd photo, for example, I stretched my arm above my head and just shot. I used that method several times and it worked to show the expanse of this packed venue.

      I really wanted to photograph some seedcorn caps and ag sweatshirts up close. But there were too many people to make this work. I was thrilled when I saw those three brothers and their dad gave me permission to photograph them. I loved how the little one was so shy and turned his head away from me.

      Watch for more photos coming from the farm toy show.

      • Beth Ann Says:

        Here is a link to an article about the Sock Sale!!!! Hopefully you can pull it up—-some of these newspapers make me mad because you have to have a subscription to read the online stuff even but maybe this one will work for you.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Yes, I was able to access the article. I get frustrated, too, when I can’t read a newspaper article. But, having worked in the newspaper business, I understand why publishers do this.

        Anyway, I enjoyed learning about this sock sale, especially the sock monkey part. I’ve always loved sock monkeys. My sister Lanae had one as a kid and I always wished I had one, too. Remind me next fall of this sale and perhaps a road trip to Iowa will be in order. Where, exactly, is Osage? If I wasn’t so lazy, I’d just look it up online, wouldn’t I?

      • Beth Ann Says:

        It is in Mitchell County—about 40 minutes from us so shouldn’t be too awfully far from you. It was a fun little jaunt!

  2. Jackie Says:

    My dad would have loved this. He collect the small scale tractors, I, on the other hand probably would have sat in the car, those big crowds make me nutty. I enjoyed your photo’s, I’m with you on the ashtray, that’s a cool little find!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m gonna be honest here and tell you that I, too, thought of turning around and walking right out of that crowd. It’s one of the reasons I don’t attend the State Fair. This sort of reminded me of being stuck in the State Fair DNR building as a little girl wedged into a mass of people. Not a good memory.

      But…, once I started focusing on photo ops, I started enjoying the farm toy show. It was the vintage literature and finds like that ash tray that held my interest. Lucky for me most attendees seemed interested in the toys. That meant fewer swarming people at the paper merchandise tables.

      They really need a bigger venue for this show. Randy said, “Bring it to the Faribo West Mall.” That would be a perfect location too as Faribault is right along Interstate 35.

  3. treadlemusic Says:

    Have been to such events and, I agree, ‘overwhelming’ is the phrase. Also, in this category is the sock sale!!! At least I have been there enough to go with a request list from the family so I can “sort through” all the aisles/boxes of socks, mitts and other knitted items Fox River makes. Until you’ve experienced it….there are NO words (or photos or newspaper articles) that can describe the chaos (very orderly, though….they’ve been doing this for years and know how to handle the gazillion people who come!!!!!!)! The $$$ are amazingly low and the product quality is awesome!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, I need to find some good quality socks. I used to buy mine at JCP, just plain old cotton socks with turn-over cuffs. But the quality has declined. I have looked and looked and looked, to no avail.

      So last night I searched again at a Big Box retailer where I had not shopped for socks. I picked up eight pair, knowing they were not of the quality I wanted. But nearly every single sock I own sports a hole. So I needed socks, immediately. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the quality of socks and other clothing on the market. I need quality and affordability.

      • treadlemusic Says:

        A tough combo to come by these days. The Osage,MN, sock sale falls on the same weekend each year (do have to check to be sure, though). DH comes along to carry the big (and I mean BIG) plastic bag you are given at the door for shopping. You will not believe their check-out system they have devised. Make this year the year you go!!!!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        OK, then, please remind me at least a month in advance. Maybe it will work for us. Otherwise I’ll send you my sock size. 🙂

      • treadlemusic Says:

        I’ll put it on my calendar: REMIND AUDREY…SOCK SALE! LOL! Won’t guarantee any photos if I go, though. It’s enough that I don’t run screaming from the crowded room (I try to pick odd times to go to avoid most of the craziness!). Hehehe!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Great, I’ll count on you and Beth Ann to remind me of the sock sale. You’ll also have to advise on the best time to attend and other sites to see/things to do in the area.

  4. Yesterday I saw a John Deere parked in a driveway next to a car at a farmers front door on a major highway…We are losing our Agrarian Society 😦

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, I agree about the loss of our agrarian society. Events like this farm toy show serve to keep folks connected to the farm and to connect the next generation to the land.

  5. I have an older friend who grew up on a farm in Iowa and later became an agronomist and worked for a seed company. He still owns farmland although he doesn’t do the farming himself. He collects scale model tractors and even full-sized tractors! He recently sold many of his at an auction but still has lots. I really don’t know what the appeal is, but then I suppose that’s the way with all collections. It’s only the collectors themselves who “get it.”

    Ok, about socks. We buy socks at our local farm supply store. Wigwams from Wisconsin. They are excellent cold weather socks. And did you know that the original sock monkey socks came from Rockford, Illinois not too far from me? There is a fiberglass sock monkey in the Rockford airport.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I think I’ve been to Rockford. Is that near Sterling? I’m trying to remember the hometown of a good friend from college. And I keep thinking Sterling. I would love to photograph a fiberglass sock monkey. How sweet that would be.

      Also, on my travels to Wisconsin, I’ll need to look for Wigwams.

  6. Great Post! I could see the 5 males in my family enjoying this – range from 60s to teens – ha! Happy Thursday:)

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