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Tinkering with toys

Monte man started building and collecting farm toys in ‘82

Wes Thompson of Montevideo works on a John Deere tractor in his shop. Thompson has been building and collecting farm toys since his dad died in 1982. Thompson wanted a hobby, something his dad did not have in his retirement years. Photo by Scott Thoma

Wes Thompson of Montevideo works on a John Deere tractor in his shop. Thompson has been building and collecting farm toys since his dad died in 1982. Thompson wanted a hobby, something his dad did not have in his retirement years. Photo by Scott Thoma

Wes Thompson is proof that you’re never too old for toys.

But Thompson, 78, doesn’t play with toys. Instead, the retired farmer from Montevideo has been building and collecting toy farm implements for the past 34 years.

And when Thompson constructs a toy, his 1/16th-scale models would rival any toy manufacturer, with intricate detail right down to the miniature nuts and bolts that hold them together.

“I could have soldered them together,” he said. “But the real (implements) aren’t soldered.”

Thompson is personable and a kid at heart, telling one story after another; most of them permeated with some type of humor. And he often pokes fun of his own educational background.

“I’ll be honest with you; I only have an eighth-grade education,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I may not have a lot of education, but someone once told me I was given a gift. I call it mind therapy.”

Thompson, who grew up on a farm outside of Montevideo, is a self-proclaimed workaholic and just because he is retired, doesn’t mean he has to stop working.

“He will spend hours and hours in his shop in the basement,” said Dorraine, his wife of 59 years. “Sometimes I still shake my head and the time he spends on the toys. But it’s something he really loves.”

The basement of the Thompsons’ spacious home on the west side of Montevideo includes two large rooms, each with three illuminated display cases, as well as wood shelves that house his farm toys. Two more display cases are stationed in the hallway outside the rooms.

“I have about 600 (scale models) in all,” Thompson said proudly. “I’ve built about 50 or 60 of them myself, and the others I’ve restored or collected over the years.”

Part of Wes Thompson’s immaculate farm toy collection. Photo by Scott Thoma

Part of Wes Thompson’s immaculate farm toy collection. Photo by Scott Thoma

Thompson’s collection also includes several larger-scale toy tractors, the size a small child could ride. And sitting alongside the tractors is a vintage 1941 Radio Line metal scooter that Dorrraine played with as a child growing up on a farm near Boyd.

“It wasn’t in great shape, but I restored it,” said Thompson about the scooter. “I had to order the Radio Line decal for the front of it, like it had originally. Radio Line was eventually bought out by Radio Flyer.”

There are a few other items in his collection, but it’s building farm toys from scratch that keeps him young.

“Why not do something you enjoy?” he asked, rhetorically.

While he has enjoyed restoring an old toy he has found at an antique shop or garage sale, his biggest thrill now is building a toy from scratch.

When Thompson’s mother passed away in 1972, it left his father alone for 10 years until he passed in 1982.

“My dad was a lonely man after my mom died. He never had a hobby or anything,” said Thompson. “So I decided that I wanted to make sure that I had a hobby, but I didn’t know what it would be.”

But an idea came to him one day while driving past some old tractors near Darwin on Highway 12. He stopped and looked at the old abandoned tractors and decided he would take up collecting farm toys as a hobby.

Thompson drove back to Montevideo to inform his wife of the light bulb that had gone off in his head, figuring she might think he was crazy.

“I remember when he told me, I said ‘You’re going to do what?’” laughed Dorraine. “I never thought he would get into it this much.”

Thompson decided he would spend $500 on his new hobby. But soon after, the thrill of buying old tractors and combines dissipated.

“So I thought I would instead buy old toys, like 1930s and ‘40s tractors and such, and restore them,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about restoring them, though.”

He soon became a self-taught toy restorer; sanding them down, adding body putty, repainting them, and putting on new decals.

“But I soon got bored with that, too,” he said. “It was just the same old thing.”

Since he now had a general idea of how the farm toys were assembled and how to replace and restore parts, Thompson brainstormed and came up with the idea of building toys from the ground up.

“I wanted to put detail into them and customize them,” he explained. “So I added more detail things, such as gas caps and radiator caps. Little things like that.”

But he soon realized that the Ertl Company was basically mass producing the same type of farm toy that he was building.

“I realized that I could buy better than I could make,” he admitted. “So I thought ‘Now what do I do?’ and I decided to make precision toys.”

And precision is an understatement. All the farm toys he constucts are complete with every detail that the one he replicates has, including augers, cleaning siebes, belts, rattle chains, straw choppers and cleaning fans.

Thompson calls his self-made toy world wwt-oys (the wwt are his initials). His farm toys consist of all the names familiar to farmers of all eras – John Deere, International Harvester, David Bradley, Allis Chalmers, Ford, Minneapolis Moline and Massey Harris, to name a few. The oldest toy he has built is a 1937 Farmall F12, which was his father’s first tractor and also the first tractor Thompson ever drove.

The shop in his basement isn’t high-tech. There are no large machines that do the work for him. No computers to determine the size of each part. And no fancy air sprayers to complete the custom paint job.

“Here’s my air sprayer,” he laughed, opening a cabinet door that revealed several cans of spray paint.

“And here is my top-of-the-line metal bender,” he joked, as he pulled a hand-held tool off a pegboard hook from the wall.

“He’s not a big factory person,” laughed Dorraine. “He’s more primitive.”

The perfection and detail in each of his projects is astonishing. But even more so when you realize it’s all done with tools you can find in any hardware store.

Thompson takes a 1/16th-scale replica toy of a 1957 John Deere combine out of a display case that he built recently in his primitive workshop.

“I saw this combine outside of Montevideo,” he said. “And I wanted to build it. So I asked the owner if I could take pictures and measure it so I could try to build a toy model of it.”

As he showed how the miniscule nuts and bolts could be removed with a small tool, he seemed to marvel at his ability to thread and unthread them despite his oversized and crooked fingers.

“Pretty good for having big old bent fingers, huh?” he added, while displaying a noticeably crooked middle finger that was the result of a farm accident many years ago.

Thompson then brings out a 1/16 conversion chart he made to use as a guide when scaling down the toys he is working on.

“I measured all the parts on that combine and then figured out what size it would have to be for the 1/16 size. Now that I have a chart, I don’t have to figure out every little size every time I build a toy.”

Thompson then gave an example of his precision by opening up a cleaning cover on the toy combine and sliding one finger up under the opening where it’s not visible.

“Put your finger in here,” he requested. “Feel the auger in there? It doesn’t have to be there because no one can see it way up in there. But I know it’s in the real one, so I wanted it in this one. I do that with everything I build.”

Some of the parts for his farm toys are taken off old toys he’s purchased at an antique shop or a garage sale. Other parts have to be special ordered after searching all over the country to find them. Fortunately, some things like sheet metal and paint can be found locally.

“He even goes to JoAnn Fabric to get parts,” laughed Dorraine, referring to black necklace elastic that he uses for combine belts.

When asked how long it takes to make a precision toy from scratch, a smile emerged from the corner of Thompson’s mouth to indicate that a straight answer was not forthcoming.

“About a fifth of brandy and a lot of this,” he joked, pointing to his Copenhagen tin. “Actually, they all take different amounts of time. It just depends how much time I want to spend on them.”

So passionate about building farm toys is Thompson, he will even work in pain.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a healthy man,” he said, despite appearing to have the energy of someone 25 years his junior.

He then lists off a number of surgeries he’s undergone, including a triple bypass.

“I’m very fortunate, though, to be able to do what I want to do,” he remarked.

Following surgery on his right rotator cuff recently, doctors told Thompson to watch TV and rest. But that wasn’t easy.

“I would go down in the basement and work (on a farm toy) with my left arm for a couple of hours because my right arm was in a sling,” he admitted. “It didn’t go too bad. I got pretty good with my left arm.”

The Thompsons have three children, seven grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

But it’s easy to see who the biggest kid of them all is.

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