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Going green (and yellow)

Man has been collecting John Deere items for 30+ years

   Joe Kemper has a phrase he likes to use when showing visitors around his spacious, well-organized basement showroom: “Know what this is?” Then he proceeds to explain:  “It’s a John Deere branding iron for steaks,” or, “a set of John Deere Christmas ornaments,” or “a John Deere toolkit,” or, “a can of John Deere snowmobile oil,” or “a John Deere snowmobile safety flag,” or “a fitting to hold John Deere silo staves,” or “a hog oiler.” There’s a good chance the casual visitor might not be able to identify or has even seen most of them. After some 30-plus years of dedicated collecting, it’s understandable that Joe has a variety of pieces, some of them rare. Most he picked up as bargains hidden away in a box at a farm auction or as some unidentified object at a swap meet.  Joe’s toy tractor and farm equipment collection is huge, but he only displays a small part of it at a time in his Grey Eagle home. Most of his toys are in storage. The rest are in specially built glass cases and probably represent everything John Deere ever manufactured, however briefly. There are knives, pens, placemats, kitchen utensils, calendars, signs, bottle openers, ashtrays, marbles and clocks. There’s a child’s breakfast set, along with a cow-shaped bank, Frisbees, several cookie jars, a card table and chairs, a barstool, a billfold, steins, a bow tie, a coin purse, and a kitchen matchbox holder. A man’s hatpin, probably made of copper, showing the famous deer jumping over an old-time plow, is still in its package, as is a set of pewter spoons. His favorite ashtray, from Borgmann Implement in Sauk Centre, has a picture of the John Deere Model A used on his dad’s farm in the 1950s. There’s a genuine John Deere all-weather antifreeze bottle opener, plus cans of motor  and snowmobile oil, a cream separator, and a box of fertilizer. All testimony to various products the company has produced over the years. Barbie is a typical farm girl in her pink John Deere T-shirt. There are pedal tractors on display, one in the kitchen, and more parked on a shelf in the shed.  Even mixed-breed Augie Doggie wears a John Deere collar. A little stuffed Johnnie Dearest rides a goat cart. “John Deere made these wagons around 1900,” Joe explains. “They made them green the first year, and the next year they made an unpainted one. Then they discontinued them.” The cart was designed so that kids could hitch up a goat and take a ride. But just when you think everything Joe collects is in miniature, take a look at the shed:  Rows of life-sized John Deere tractors compete for space with an antique hay tedder, gas pumps, horse-drawn plows and disks, snowmobiles, fanning mills and corn shellers. Metal advertising signs line the walls, along with–count them–186 tractor seats embossed with brand names like Whitely, Bradley, Theake, Watson, P&P Co., and Massey. Forty-two more unnamed seats lie in a pile. There are John Deere kitchen utensils, wrenches, and cans of products to keep the machines running smoothly. A girl’s bright yellow banana bike, a rare find, hangs from the rafters. Joe meticulously refinishes most of his finds, if they need it. Joe grew up on a farm near Melrose and spent most of his life working on a construction crew in Big Lake and helping on the family farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, bought their current property in 1979 and built a retirement home. Most of the land is in CRP, and Joe farms the rest in beans, wheat, or other crops. He started collecting farm toys in 1979, when he accompanied his father to Mora to buy an antique tractor. The owner also had toys for sale. He told Joe, “You should be getting into these toys.  That’s the coming thing.”  So the following winter, he went to a toy show and came back with a load of farm toys. More toys shows, auctions and swap meets followed. He bought them by the boxful, in the days when they only cost a few dollars.  He also bought most brands of toy tractors from dealerships as they were produced annually. “I kept buying more and more,” he recalls. “You couldn’t walk into our basement any more. So I sold 135 pieces.” He kept the John Deere tractors because they reminded him of his childhood, and the Smith-Miller trucks, because they were hard to find and expensive. And then he kept right on collecting. Meanwhile, he had bought his first big collectible tractor, a 1937 John Deere B, in 1977 at a threshing show “I grew up with John Deere tractors, so I figured I should go get one” He paid $325. “You couldn’t buy a magneto or a carburetor or a tire for it now for that,” he says. “The same guy had cast iron seats. He said, you should look around for these, too. So I bought my first seat from this guy. From there you go on and on and on until the shed’s full.” And since the shed is well and truly full, Joe has slacked off on buying more equipment. “The last tractor I bought was three years ago. I still use it to cut and haul wood out of the woods, but if I could get one at the right price….”  He adds, “It’s got to have some sentimental value, or you’ll never get your money back on them.” But the collecting bug bites hard, as any collector can attest. You get the feeling that Joe might find room for more equipment in that shed and more toys in the showroom. As for those things a casual visitor might not understand: The branding iron could put the finishing touch on a grilled steak–a John Deere trademark. The Christmas ornaments, made every year since 1986, came in velvet pouches. Joe paid $13 for the first one, which is now worth $600.  It depicts the Model D, John Deere’s longest produced tractor (1924-1953.) The safety flag and oil were designed to keep John Deere snowmobilers safe and their machines lubricated; they made snowmobiles from 1972 to 1981. The toolkits came from the tops of horse-drawn mowers. The silo staves came from a wooden King Corn silo once built by John Deere.  They held the bolts that held the silo together. And the hog oilers kept hogs free from mange and probably delivered them a refreshing back rub.

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