Bob Groeb's tiny tractors
by Dale R. Leslie
From the April, 2018 issue
Bob Groeb's dawn-to-dusk workday on the Saline family farm in the 1940s began at 5 a.m. when he started their versatile farm tractor. Every morning on the 165-acre homestead on Maple Rd., twenty-five to thirty cows crowded into the Groeb barn for milking.
Groeb, perched behind the steering wheel of the big tricycle tractor, moved the herd's heavy daily nourishment of feed and hay into place. After the milking chores were complete, he directed the powerful machine to lift the heavy milk cans into the critically important refrigeration storage unit. In addition, the tractor powered the plowing, planting, and harvesting of crops on the Groeb farm.
Today, tractors still play a central role in Groeb's life, albeit not on the same scale. The home that the friendly retired farmer shares with his wife, Barb, houses more than 1,700 diverse makes and models of toy farm equipment. A huge display fills their large, long basement on floor-to-ceiling shelves. "I finally found the time to count each unit on display," Groeb notes, smiling, "but my wife reminds me there is toy back stock in boxes downstairs that I didn't count!"
Toy farm implement collections number over 3,000 nationwide, and it's not surprising that many of the collectors are former farmers. Groeb's grandfather first sparked Bob's interest in collecting farm implements, giving the boy his first toy tractor, a cast iron model, when he was five years old. "It's the cherished part of the collection as well as an antique," he notes. "Not for sale."
Nearly every brand of toy tractor is represented in the Groeb museum including toy models from England, France, and Germany. A Mercedes tractor? Yes, Groeb has a model.
The care and organization of the collection is impressive. Groeb hand-constructed most of the storage cabinetry and shelves in the basement, which also houses a separate bar that Groeb built using trim from a discarded piano. The familiar green of John Deere equipment is easily recognizable in one
of the cabinets. A set of shelves has display doors that swing open so he can touch, remove, and work on each toy.
Much of the to-scale stock looks fresh and ready to roll. This is a labor of love: Groeb keeps each piece working and dust free. Among his most valuable pieces are toys that he received as a child still in their original boxes. "I've seen the toy original boxes individually sell for five hundred to a thousand dollars each," he says.
What happens when a piece needs to be repaired? "Toy Farmer magazine is a source for parts," Groeb says. But even with the help of the trade publication, he notes, "The older the model toy, the more difficult it is to find an original part."
Like car companies, over time, tractor manufacturers consolidated. What's surprising is that the little minnow often swallowed the whale. New Holland bought Ford's tractor and equipment line, and J.I. Case merged with International Harvester, an original granddaddy of the production of farm tractors and equipment.
The toy collection also mirrors the real-life history of technical innovations. A gigantic green toy model replicates the huffing-and-puffing, steam-powered giant tractor of the early 1900s. "They devoured firewood like candy and were slower than horses to plant and harvest crops," Groeb says. When gas and diesel engines "became the norm versus coal or wood, the tractors reduced in size but were just as powerful."
Today, there are four full-size tractors in his barn from his days as a farmer, including the 1941 Model SC Case tractor that has been in the family for two generations: Groeb's dad purchased it just before the start of World War II. That conflict's impact was also felt in the toy world. "Before the war, the toy tractors and farm equipment were manufactured with metal, but the material was quarantined when the war began, and production of steel had a higher priority."
For the real toy tractor aficionados, the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa, holds a big shindig in November. Locally, Future Farmers of America chapters in the area high schools also sponsor toy farm equipment shows.
What is Groeb's dream acquisition? A Massey-Harris self-propelled combine from the 1950s, he says, with a trace of regret. "I saw one at a show, and I should have bought it."
As the awestruck visitor climbs upstairs from the basement museum, Groeb proudly points out a sign on the wall.
"Man--despite his artistic pretensions, his satisfaction and his many accomplishments--owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains."
[Originally published in April, 2018.]
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