PAXTON — “I’m 60, but I still play with toys.”
Rural Rankin farmer Chris Elliott isn’t alone. A lot of people like playing with, and collecting, farm toys as seen at Saturday’s Paxton-Buckley-Loda FFA Farm Toy Show. It marked the 32nd consecutive year for the event, and as always the gymnasium and stage area were full of farm toy items and farm displays.
Elliott, who began farming on his own in 1980, has been to every farm toy show at Paxton since. His family likes to come along as well. His wife, Janet, and their two sons were also on hand. They had a display of John Deere farm toys in the gym.
Elliott, who farms in Ford, Champaign and Vermilion counties, isn’t in it for the money.
“You will not make money” selling farm toys, Elliott said.
The satisfaction of coming to the shows is the people.
“The friendships by far” outweigh anything, Elliott said. “The people you meet are fantastic. Watching the kids grow up, and they come back 10 years later, and you remember when they helped carry your toys in, and you see them in Champaign: ‘Hey, I know you.’”
Kirsten Wyatt, who with Mike White serves as FFA adviser and ag teacher at PBL, said the students and alumni stage the show. She said she and White act “as liaisons.”
Getting the FFA students (there are 90 of them at PBL) involved is a learning tool. It gives them an opportunity to work with adults as well as helping them to build on their leadership skills “for when they leave high school,” Wyatt said.
The show averages between 400 and 600 visitors each year.
Laura Procter and her committee of alumni members help with the concession stand. Another of the active alumni is Buckley resident Jim Biggs, who gets in contact with the dealers to notify them about the show and see if they need anything.
Biggs said the show averages a little more than 30 dealers. Thirty-six dealers turned out for Saturday’s show, possibly due to a mild forecast.
“We usually sell over 100 tables,” Biggs said. One dealer booked six tables.
In addition to the sales and display tables, there are tables holding silent auction items.
“A lot of individuals sell on that,” Biggs said. “They pay a fee to have their items put on the silent auction.”
Most of the dealers hail from central Illinois, although some come from western Illinois, Indiana and the Chicago area.
Biggs has more than a passing interest in farm toys. He has collected them for years and focuses on the era when he was in high school (1962-64). He tends to go green, primarily collecting John Deere with some Oliver toys.
For Elliott, collecting isn’t what it used to be.
He got hooked in 1979 after he attended a show in Rantoul.
“Back in those days, you could just get in your pickup and drive around to local dealers and still find old stuff on the shelf,” Elliott said. “We drove all over Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, but those days are gone. You can’t anymore. It’s been picked through, and many of the dealers are gone.”
Elliott said at one time Paxton had four farm implement dealers. Now it has none.
That makes it more difficult to find vintage toys.
Elliott displays his farm toys at three shows — PBL, Effingham and Winamac, Ind. He said the PBL show is his favorite.
“The people and the alumni group — the parents come back and are interested in the kids today” — are what make it special, Elliott said. “(Former adviser) Doug Anderson, how that bunch helped those guys! Boy, I admire that. That’s hard to come by. They’re good people — Mr. White and Kirsten (Wyatt). When PBL calls, we help them.”
Bismarck resident Tyler Steinbaugh was among those with a farm display at the show. His display was titled Mississippi River grain termals. Steinbaugh is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who also likes to build farm displays.
He said he was interested in the subject of the display “because I’ve never seen one.”
Half of Steinbaugh’s display was purchased off the internet, but he modeled the office and the coffee shop from Bismarck, where a character he knew used to visit regularly and play cards. Nearby sat a Farmall tractor like one that an area farmer regularly parked there prior to cutting hay.
It marked the “ninth or 10th” PBL show for Steinbaugh.
One of those on hand to rub shoulders with show-goers was Kelly Birkey. Birkey and his three brothers started the International Harvester farm implement dealership in Paxton back in the ‘60s.
Birkey is long retired, and the store is long gone, but he continues to stay involved. His wife, Minerva, accompanied him to Saturday’s show with his customary red (International Harvester) farm toys.
“I’ve been in Paxton since ‘71 with all these Swedes. But they haven’t made a Swede out of me. I’m still German,” Birkey quipped.
The 91-year-old has been displaying since the first show opened. Last year he bought some John Deere toys at a garage sale, and he said he got teased about it so much that he sold them.
He used to have a room full of farm toys. He also collected antique farm equipment, restoring some of it, including corn pickers, combines and the like, but has gotten rid of all of that except Cub Cadets.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Birkey said. “The thing is, you meet so many good people. I always said, ‘I’ve been very fortunate to sell farm machinery all my life to American farmers. Basically, good, honest people.”