While raising grain in remote northeastern Montana, Dorman Olson could never tolerate idleness once his chores were done. He channeled his energy and perfectionist personality into building replicas of toy tractors and other ag equipment for himself and farm toy collectors worldwide.
His meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail paid off. His 1/16th-scale reproductions won trophies at farm toy shows, and his eBay customers repeatedly ordered from him.
“Everything I made was based on machinery I used on the farm,” said Olson, 91. He raised wheat and barley for nearly a half century on his 3,000-acre farm near Peerless, a village of 80 residents in remote northeastern Montana. “To make a piece look realistic, I’d customize it with things like hitches, lights, hoses, and railings.”
Last year, when he moved to Mackay, Idaho, to be near his son, Olson, brought his favorite pieces with him. In a lighted glass display case in his living room, replicas of John Deere equipment, with the company’s distinctive green and yellow paint, are parked in precise rows on shelves.
“It was a good pastime in the evenings,” Olson said. “My wife, Marilyn, and I didn’t get rich selling them on eBay and at shows, but we met a lot of wonderful collectors. We even had customers in China.”
Realizing their children did not have room in their homes to inherit and display Olson’s vast collection, Marilyn sold most of his 800 replicas, some he had handcrafted and others collected from the local John Deere dealership.
“Before Marilyn passed away five years ago, we must have sold about 2,000 farm toys, including a friend’s collection,” Olson said. “I haven’t sold any since then because she handled all the technology.”
The onset of macular degeneration several years ago has prevented Olson from making any more replicas.
He is among thousands of farm toy collectors nationwide. Ag equipment manufacturers began selling farm toys in the early 20th century as a way to promote their machinery. In the early 1970s, people began collecting farm toys as a serious hobby, according to collectorsweekly.com. Collectors began organizing shows nationwide and established the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa in 1986.
“Some collectors have told me the toys are sentimental, because they remind them of their childhood,” Olson said.
He said his collection triggers memories of growing up on a farm in Minnesota and eventually owning his own farm in Montana.
Discharged from the Army Rangers after World War II, Olson found a job on a Montana farm and worked there until he could afford to buy his farm near Peerless in 1952.
With the nearest ag dealership selling John Deere equipment, he naturally chose to buy their products. In the early ’70s, the local dealer started giving a toy with every equipment purchase, which started Olson’s collection.
He soon began making to-scale replicas, thumbing through farm toy catalogs to pick the basic model he wanted. Then he customized it to make it look realistic and even built implements from scratch, including blades, mowers, discs, and plows.
“I enjoy making just about anything from metal,” he said.
A self-described perfectionist, he said, “If the paint wasn’t right, I’d start over and do it again until I was satisfied. Marilyn liked to say I was fussy.”
One of his most satisfying projects was building a John Deere 8850 tractor.
“You couldn’t buy one from a toy company in the 1/16 scale, so I bought an 8650 and rebuilt everything from the cab forward to make it realistic,” he said. “I enjoyed making that model so much that I made four and sold three, including one for $1,000. I had to keep one for myself.”
After retiring in 1998 and leasing out his land, Olson devoted more time to his hobby. Two years later, he sold the farm and kept their five-acre farmstead with their house, shop, and outbuildings.
“I’m not the type to sit and watch TV, so I kept making the farm toys,” he said.
Although some collectors have offered to buy his replicas, Olson declines and said they are priceless.
“They’re still sentimental to me and not for sale.” ISI