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Monday, February 15, 2010

Farm Toys Draw Young and Old Alike in Cassopolis

South Bend Tribune

Farming has always been in Jerry Zahner's blood — for better or worse.

He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, and passed along his trade to his two grown sons.

"I wish my father would have been a doctor," Zahner, 62, of Wakarusa, said with a laugh. "Then I might have been a doctor, too. It's a hard job."

But kidding aside, Zahner wouldn't do it if he didn't have the passion and pedigree for working the earth.

One of those passions that came from farming over the decades has been collecting miniature farm toys. In all, he said he likely has thousands of them.

"It's been something that's kept me busy," he said.

Hundreds of farm toys were on display Saturday at the second annual Farm Toy Show at Brookside Learning Center on Dailey Road west of Cassopolis. In total, there were 47 tables divided between about 15 venders, up from last year's total of 25 tables, organizer Tim Wallace said.

Thousands of such toys, mostly tractors and combines, were shown off — from green tractors to yellow and red combines. Like Zahner, many venders have been traveling — sometimes great lengths — to farm toy shows for decades and have formed tight bonds with those around them.

Jane Demske, 62, of Pierceton, Ind., has been coming to such shows with her family for 40 years. Her husband, Jim, who died from cancer last August, packed the family up two weekends a month for decades. Demske, who was attending a show for the first time since her husband passed, had hundreds of cars, tractors and other farm equipment miniatures displayed on her table.

She'll eventually hold an auction at her home at the end of the year to sell off most of her husband's toys — except for one dresser of her husband's favorites, which will be kept.

"The kids grew up on these," she said. "We would pack the whole family up and go to these all over; it would be our vacation. It's been a big part of our family. The kids made so many great friends."

Demske's daughter, Kary Gentry, said her son learned to walk at a show, and that she slept in boxes on the tables when she was a kid.

Bruce Hart, 72, of Niles, and his wife, Jean, said they have been collecting for at least 15 years and have an estimated $20,000 worth of farm toys.

"We've met so many wonderful people," she said. "But it's a lot of work. There's so much packing and re-opening."

Zahner said it took him three or four hours early Saturday morning to unpack his items and display them on the tables.

But it's worth it if he comes away with a little money, especially since last year was tough on farmers.

"I don't do it for my health," he said with a smile.

Asked just how many he has in total, Zahner said he couldn't even guess.

"This," he said looking at the table in front of him, "is just a drop in the bucket."

He's had miniature tractors and combines of all sizes and makes — from John Deere toys, the most common, to McCormick-Deering Farmall and Minneapolis Moline. Some of his rare items include grain combines — about the size of a toy car — that actually run when you turn them on. The grain head moves, the doors open and the steering wheel shifts.

"It runs better than a regular run," Zahner said.

And costs more when you figure in its size. One of them can go for $2,300 at such shows, he said.

Some people, many of whom are farmers, showed up just to browse. That was the case for Mike Bradley, of Cassopolis, and his 12-year-old son, Jacob.

"It's grown threefold this year," Bradley said. "Some of the displays are pretty neat."

Jacob, meanwhile, is well on his way to becoming a collector, having 40 to 50 toys already. He said he, too, could get to 1,000 someday like so many of the collectors on hand.

And his dad just laughed at the thought of having such a large collection.