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Preserving her husband’s collection

If there was a museum for miniature replicas of hand-built antique farm machinery, the collection in the basement of Leona Schmitz’s Fairfax home would be a good place to have a look at one man’s creation. Eighteen years after the death of John Schmitz at age 75, his wife Leona preserves his artistic work with shelf displays holding more than 40 metal miniature pieces of farm machinery and equipment all hitched to teams of model horses from a bygone era. John and Leona began farming together in the 1940s in Bandon Township north of Fairfax before moving to town in 1977. Although he left the farm, John’s memories of those days never went away, and he began a hobby that filled the hours of his retirement years. Mostly constructed of many small metal hand-fabricated parts in his backyard garage workshop, John used his photographic memory and turned out dozens of detailed implements. They included grain drills, a dump rake, disc, plow, hay loader, side rake, two-row corn planter, drag cart, baler and mowers. He meticulously tied pieces of grass clippings together with string to make hay bales for the wooden wagons he carved, along with a wood sled plus a half-finished stagecoach, before he died. “He had a talent and patience for doing these things in great detail,” Leona said. “He’d spend hours out there in his shop, and if he couldn’t figure something out, he’d set it aside and start working on another piece until he found what he wanted,” she recalled. While much of John’s collection is from implements he used while working the land, he once made a miniature model of a wooden carriage that the couple rode while on a trip to Mackinac Island that was pulled by horses. “John pretty much had it memorized, but he made sure we took a photo of the carriage, and when we got back home ,he spent a lot of time on it, what he saw he had to make,” she said. All of the horses harnessed to the implements are of correct stature that would have been used to pull the equipment in real life. For example, the heavier draft horses would pull plows and hay wagons while mules and smaller horses would take care of the lighter loads. “John farmed with horses so he knew what he was looking for. He found most of the models through collectors in Iowa or in stores,” Leona said. In all, about 80 horses are harnessed to the equipment in John’s collection. When John found the horses he wanted attached to his equipment, he was specific about having them wearing proper harnesses. “There was a man who lived in Gibbon who made all of his leather harnesses, which are quite intricate, complete with reins, rivets and buckles,” she recalled. John would look at abandoned pieces of machinery he’d find rusting away in groves to help him reproduce his miniature implements, and one of the first items he made was a manure spreader. According to Leona, his hobby really took off after a visit to a county fair in Iowa when he saw an old walk behind plow and he came home and built it. John would take special requests to make and sell old implement pieces people would remember from their time on the farm. Once a man who came to town and was working for the carnival during a community festival came over to the house and bought a piece. “I think it took me 14 years to find something like it at an auction to take the place of the wagon he sold,” Leona commented. While John most of the time bought and painted all of the metal pieces for his implements, Leona said he really had to search for some of the parts and bolts that he needed. “If you look closely, the details in his pieces are pretty exact, not much is overlooked,” said Leona. In fact the guy who made the harnesses for John’s horses thought so too. “The man had ordered a mower from somebody in Montana but was dissatisfied with the quality and didn’t like it,” she explained. “John took a look at it, took it home and built a better one for him.” John also did carpentry work once he left the farm. “Anytime someone wanted him to make something, he usually could do it,” she said. He also made all of the separate wooden platforms covered with felt that each piece of implement and horses are mounted to for easier moving of the object and to clean off the dust. “John never had time to do a hobby like this when he was farming, but once he started he met a lot of people and had fun sharing his interests with others at toy shows. No matter what kind of hobby you have, sharing it with others can be very gratifying,” she said. These days, most of John’s miniature implement collection neatly rests on basement shelves to tell a story for the occasional visitor. Leona says she doesn’t know the collection’s value but she’ll never sell the pieces as they’ve become a source of family pride in what John accomplished. “You can’t replace the creativity and enjoyment it gave to John, and keeping a display on the shelves after all these years is my tribute to him. The collection will stay here for his family.”

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