By Bill Vossler
Mike Riebel is a do-it-yourselfer. Even as a young collector on the farm near Le Sueur, if he wanted a model or implement and it hadn’t been built, no problem. He built it himself.
Growing up on a farm in the 1960s enhanced his creativity, he said. “Those families didn’t have a lot, so when something needed to be fixed or built, they had to figure out how to do it on the fly. And kids had school shop,” said the 61-year-old co-founder of Attis Industries. Riebel continues to do research and product development for Attis at his shop in Mankato. Attis does advanced research on biomaterial, biofuels and biochemicals.
Riebel built toys he couldn’t find, bundle wagons for threshing, a little grain box, grain bin, elevator, and items like that. “I like building,” he said.
And then when he graduated from high school in 1977, he built another toy he couldn’t find, a 1/8 scale Advance steam engine from scratch.
“My father Melvin, and uncles, Bob and Loren Riebel, were co-founders of the Le Sueur Pioneer Power show, so I was around old iron and always interested in scale models,” he said.
As a kid he said a few neighbor boys about the same age had a big collection of farm toys, and they all played with them.
“They had a large area set up with miniature barns, roads, and buildings, along with 1/16-scale farm tractors that we played on for many hours at a time. We all had our own collections which our parents gave us at Christmas, and it was fun to have all the neighbors together with many tractors and miniature fields to play on.”
At that time, most of Mike’s toys were Ertl 1/16 scale, like the Farmall 806.
“After my mom passed away and we cleaned out the farm, I dug that Farmall 806 with a narrow front end out of an old sandbox pile of sand, and cleaned it up. It is still in surprisingly good shape, considering we played hard and rough. I decided not to repaint it and leave it as is in a display.”
He used it as a model to build his half-scale one that runs.
He said he sees many collectors having toys so they can show them to younger or middle-aged kids who don’t remember the farm. “Then they have something to show that will call up memories, and say, ‘I had this tractor, or this toy in 1/16 scale, and I remember growing up on the farm.’ They want their sons to remember. I think most toy and model collectors have the toys to trigger some memories in their history of a brand they had, or a specific tractor.”
One of Mike’s favorite parts of his toy collection nowadays is a 1/16 scale setup, or diorama of acorn crib, elevator, corn picker, and an old John Deere corn sheller and truck that matches it. “It’s an old scene from the farm I grew up on, and is my favorite. It’s a model from my father’s farm where he built an original corn crib, and had the neighbors come over with their John Deere corn sheller and tractor to shell the corn, so make that diorama is from another childhood memory of watching corn shelling with all the equipment and people involved. So I like doing the full scenes like this one. I will build a corn crib, making it look like it originally did instead of putting fifty 1/16 scale tractors on a bookshelf. I like to try to set up, and take pictures, and stuff like that.”
He also has a John Deere 1/16 scale 445 Precision in a setup showing corn growing, picking and harvesting.
He collects toys because they bring back good memories of the farm, of his parents, uncle, grandparents, and neighbors.
The Building Bug
Even though he loves to build, considering he was originally trained as a machinist and he has those tools, he discovered it was much more work than he’d anticipated.
“Building from scratch takes a lot of time. Figure the scale for every part, be creative and innovative as you build them. I enjoy building stuff, so I found the work enjoyable. It never put me off. It was gratifying to see it being built, and especially when it was done.”
He said he buys some toys with the goal to build one just like it in a different size.
“I buy stuff because I think I might replicate it at a different scale. I just bought an Oliver because a man wants me to build him a half-scale one.”
One-eighth scale items still intrigue Mike. “I built a 1/8 scale wagon and John Deere that goes with my Advance steam engine, as well as a 1/16 scale stationary steam engine and boiler that runs on compressed air. There are so many moving parts when it’s all running.”
He wants to build a 1/16 scale factory or brewery and put one of these stationary steam engines in. “It will be fun.”
In order to make the toys and models he does, Mike has to make parts. “A lot of that is metal bending and bracing, and requires some lathwork and millwork. I’m lucky to have a lot of those tools in the shop, along with computer equipment and laser equipment that allows me to do a lot of this work. I can even cast composite parts, like emblems on some of my work, or lasering out different components.”
He can scan basic items into his computer, and then redraw it to what he wants it to look like, and then customize and do something different, as he says.
Mike really appreciates custom builders from the past.
“They had to do a lot of work all with hand tools, and it gets to be a lot of hours. Custom work is very difficult, because you have to go through quite a scaling process first, and decide what to build, and how to get the scale right. The second stage is how are you going to build those parts with what materials and how are you going to form them, while the third part is the assembly. Sometimes it goes good and sometimes it requires rework. You have to understand all the individual components and how they fit, and when you’re finished, to see if the scale has been preserved. You have to pay good attention to that scale detail.”
He said he has started projects, starting to scale a model, and realizing he made a mistake early on. “I can tell that it’s off, and I have to go back and relook at how things are scaled and make over everything.
The worst part of building, he said, is doing the painting. “I don’t mind doing it, but I’m not a good painter.”
Mike said he is always looking for custom toys and models. “But hardly anyone does it any more. People who do have some of that custom stuff won’t let them loose, so I try to find families who have the custom pieces and the collector passed on, but they don’t know what to do with them.”
Mike said he also enjoys talking about toys and models and the work he is doing. “People can feel free to call me.”
Right now Mike is enjoying building 1/8 scale models from 1/16 scale tractors. “I can 3D print the parts, and paint it, and it looks great. Some of the new composites that are used are like metal.”
He has built a series of half-scale tractors that actually run, and those he really likes. Mike used to own a John Deere 2010 tractor, so he decided to make a half-scale 2010 from a John Deere 110 lawn mower. “Finding parts is always difficult,” he says.
Next was a Farmall 806 in half-scale, because his uncle had one that Mike used to drive. He started with a Cub Cadet with a PTO, although all he kept was the transmission and rear axle from it.
He also built a Minneapolis-Moline 4-wheel drive half scale tractor, starting with a four-wheel-drive Kubota lawn tractor. All of these half-scale machines actually run.
He also appreciates the work required to make mass market toys. “And then I enjoy building stuff. It takes a lot of time, but after my work and meetings, it’s kind of therapeutic for me to go in the shop and be creative and build. It’s my exercise,” he laughed.
His work brings back two kinds of comments, he said. “One is that it brings back memories. ‘I know what that is!’ And then they’ll tell stories about the family farm. The second reason is that they like all the detail I put into them. Lots of people are interested in threshing shows and are always interested in toys and models that are there. The Le Sueur Pioneer Power Show built a building just for toys. So there’s something special about them.”
One of the things Mike would like to do is to continue making larger-scale models out of 1/16 scale toys, as well as make more diorama farm scenes.
He said his 1/8 Advance steam engine was the most difficult work that he has done, partly because it was his first work, but because he had to build every part with machine shop equipment of a lathe, mill, and other tools. But it is his favorite.
Part of the reason Mike builds tractors, farm equipment, and collects farm toys is to respect his heritage and the life his forebears lived. “My dad, uncle and grandparents lived that life and used those tools. And these toys and models represent great memories of my youth.”