February 22, 2014 11:39:50 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Growing up in Webster County, Mitch Sisson wore more than the knees of his britches out pushing toy tractors around. He wore the tractors out, too. Decades later, he's still playing with farm toys -- and he's not the only one.
Sisson is one of a dedicated group of farm toy enthusiasts in the Golden Triangle area. By day, they may be engineers, professors or research technicians. But free time may find them tracking down an elusive 1/64th scale John Deere cotton picker, restoring a child-sized pedal tractor, or swapping tales at a farm toy show with other folks with "mad plow disease." For many of them, the fascination is rooted in nostalgia.
"That sentimental connection is driving this, I think," said Sisson, who lives near Maben and works with Pritchard Engineering Inc. in Starkville. "Somebody wants a toy tractor just like the tractor their granddaddy used to drive. Or they'll have one they had as a kid that's broken, and I'll fix it for them," said the drafter who repairs, restores and customizes farm toys. It keeps him connected to memories of driving a tractor on his uncle's farm, and hours spent in his daddy's small country store in Bellefontaine that was "full of farmers."
Thanks to the enthusiasm of people like Sisson, John Byrd Jr. of Starkville, Harry Collins of Tupelo, and Extension Service agent Scott Cagle, the Mississippi Farm Toy Show got its start 13 years ago in Starkville. It annually attracts collectors, vendors and the curious from not only the Magnolia State, but from Alabama, Louisina, Arkansas, Tennessee and beyond. In recent years, Greg Flint of Sturgis and Billy Self of Kosciusko have been active in putting on the show that outgrew its original home in the Mississippi State University "Bull Barn" and moved to the Mississippi Horse Park.
"Up North, you could go to a show every weekend within a two- or three-hour drive," said Sisson. "Down here, there were collectors and people who had broken toys, but they had nowhere to go to talk to anybody about them. People love to get together and talk about their farm toys."
Sisson will never forget something a collector from Illinois once told him: Toy tractors collect the nicest people. "I think a lot of people feel that way," he smiled.
It's not just tractors, of course. Model combines, cotton pickers, pickups, discs, bush hogs, hay balers, cultivators, and cattle and horse trailers are high on the list, too.
"Eighteen-wheelers are getting popular, and logging equipment, skidders, log loaders and even construction equipment," said Sisson. "It's something to see (at a show), even if you're not a collector or into it. We have a pile of fun."
Taking over the house
John Byrd Jr. started collecting farm toys about 30 years ago. "I guess my wife would tell you they're taking over the house," he joked. Indeed, don't look for dishes in the china cabinet in the Byrd's Starkville home: It's filled instead with 1/16th scale John Deere and Caterpillar farm toys. (There are so many models, most collectors decide to specialize in one or two brands.)
Byrd's oldest pieces date to the late 1930s and early 1940s. He even incorporates some into his work as a professor in MSU's Plant and Soil Sciences Department, where he specializes in weed science. They're a big hit whenever he talks to children.
"When the kids come through -- especially the boys -- they just run to the table where I've got those toys set up; I think it may be tied to the Y chromosome," Byrd said. "I don't think God has made a little boy yet that isn't automatically drawn to a toy tractor."
Adults aren't left out. Byrd brought toy models of antique equipment used to maintain roadsides as door prizes for an annual Mississippi Department of Transportation meeting. He helps develop right-of-way weed control programs for MDOT.
Aside from the desire to reconnect with a farming past, collectors often enjoy the challenge of the hunt, especially when it comes to locating older models. One prime place for that can be the National Farm Toy Show in Iowa.
"If there's a farm toy mecca, it's Dyersville, Iowa," said Byrd. The National Farm Toy Museum is there, too. There is even a Farm Toy Hall of Fame.
The national show -- and smaller shows, like the one in Starkville -- are eagerly anticipated as much for the opportunity to visit as for the toys. "It seems like Mississippi collectors stay quiet all year, then come to the show to do a year's worth of visiting with others who share their interest," Sisson remarked.
A big part of it is telling stories, reminiscing about the family farms that meant, and mean, so much.
"Stories are a big part of it; people like to share those," said Sisson. "Our jaws hurt from talking and smiling."
Passing it on
Like the others, Greg Flint wants to see the region's base of farm toy buffs increase and the Starkville show grow. With the exception of a small show that recently started up in Cleveland, the Starkville event is the only one in Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana, as far as the group is aware.
"We're trying hard to build interest; we're gradually building a little niche here," said Flint, who works with the USDA and restores pedal tractors, too. He collects mostly International brand farm toys, and has full-size Farmall tractors as well. As advisor to MSU's FarmHouse Fraternity, he recruits fraternity members to help with the show. It's one way to get young people interested, and that's important.
More and more Americans are growing up with no connection to the agricultural roots earlier generations enjoyed. A USDA census released Feb. 20 puts the average age of American farmers in 2012 at 58.3. More than a third of farmers were older than 65. The number of farms in 2012 was 2.1 million, down a little more than four percent from the last census in 2007. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes a bright spot: There was a small rise in the number of farmers between 25 and 34 years old.
The future popularity of farm toys may lie in the hands of children like 10-year-old Maggie Sisson, who likes to help her dad work on toy tractors. At the show held Feb. 14-15 at the Horse Park, she set up her own farm display. One day she just might be entering the diorama display contest at the national show, one of a new generation with its own tales to swap about riding a tractor with dad.
Editor's note: For more information about farm toy collecting or next year's show in Starkville, contact Mitch Sisson, 662-769-3107, or Greg Flint, 662-418-9101.
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.