John Deere Green
by Judy Gonyeau
Visit the John Deere Store website and you will enter the land of “John Deere Green” and yellow in every shape and form you can imagine. The majority of items available are pieces of clothing for the entire family, from infants on up. The biggest seller is most likely the John Deere hat collection. While more are listed for men (men’s hats: 73; for the ladies: 15), it would be hard to walk into a farm supply store and not see someone wearing one. Go under “for the home” and you will find 29 product group listings with Air Tools & Accessories coming in at #1 with 50 products, and the Kitchen group coming in at #2 with 44. When I clicked on the “tote” category to bring up the one bag it contained, I expected to see a canvas bag in blaring green and yellow, but what I saw was more akin to a Louis Vuitton purse in black. To quote Green Acres, “Darling, I love you but give me Park Avenue.”
To gain more information on the John Deere collecting phenomenon, I payed a visit to Len Chase, a local collector who has been gathering collectibles for over 30 years.
Len has lived all his life in a small New England town in Western Massachusetts, but having toys as a child was considered a luxury. “If I wanted a bike I had to go out and work to save the money from a very young age. As a teenager I did farm work and when the owner was ill, I ran that farm. I was around 14 or 15 at the time, and it was hard work tending to livestock and growing crops. But that gave me a strong work ethic and meant I had to grow up fast to earn a wage and make my home. Now I have toys.”
Coming into Len’s Man-Cave (Man-Office, Man-House, Man-Barn) you cannot help but be struck by the permeation of John Deere throughout the building(s). It is the main theme. Along the ceiling in the waiting room is a collection of metal John Deere tractors and more, including a John Deere gas pump with glass, yellow trailer with a yellow tractor on it, a combine, and a tiny John Deere bicycle (yes, they made life-size bikes, too, among many other products).
Because Len’s collecting consists mainly of smaller items and models, there is plenty of room for other items, including his collection of TootsieToys. These die-cast miniature cars and trucks were made starting in the 1890s and continued through much of the 20th century. “They had great design and detail, the three sizes of vehicles they made were small enough for little hands, and were well loved.” When looking for the early TootsieToys, just try to find one from the pre-WWII era with all its paint intact. Good luck!
Len’s most prized TootsieToys occupy the two crowded shelves surrounding his desk in his office. “TootsieToys tended to stick mainly to things like trucks and construction at the beginning, but moved on to create almost anything with wheels.”
What do these two collections have in common with the collector? “It’s all because of a certain date,” explains Len. “Both share my birthday of February 7. John Deere and I share a birthday, and the application for the patent of the TootsieToy name was also dated February 7.” This coincidence was not lost on Len who has belief in things showing up in his path for a reason.
The John Deere Attraction
John Deere grew up in Rutland, Vermont in the early 1800s and moved to Grand Detour, Illinois in 1836 to avoid bankruptcy in his home state. He was just 34 at the time and was a talented blacksmith. Once in Illinois, he opened Deere & Company in 1837, working as a repairman and a maker of large hand-tools and implements. He made his mark with the creation of the self-scouring steel plow that allowed farmers to pull the plow for longer distances without getting stuck in the mud. This plow was a key element in the expansion of farmlands and the growing migrant population coming to the Midwest.
Looking to expand its operations and move into the production of larger equipment, the Deere Company bought Waterloo Engine Company in 1918. This took place the same year they were producing the “Dain” tractor, Deere’s very first. Only 50-100 Dains were built. By adding Waterloo to the company’s make-up, Deere stopped making the Dain and begin making the Waterloo Boy tractor – which was less expensive to produce and faster to build. They followed that up with the Model D in 1924—a new tractor developed solely by Deere & Company and the first mass-produced tractor with the John Deere name on it—and a phenomenon was born.
During World War II, the company not only made farm machinery but military tractors, transmissions for the M3 tank, aircraft parts, and ammunition. Following the War, John Deere continued to expand manufacturing to meet the demands created by returning soldiers and the resulting Baby Boom: the increased market for food from the farm belt and the equipment to make it happen.
Len tends to stand with the two-cycle fans, having restored a 1950 M tractor to its original beauty. “It runs, and may occasionally see a field, but not as often as before I restored it,” says Len. “If I could have any John Deere, it would probably be the 1959 John Deere 330, one of the last two-cylinder tractors ever made by John Deere.”
The John Deere logo with its leaping deer has been used for over 155 years, and the company has different colors for agricultural vs. construction products. Farm products feature the green with yellow border logo, and if it is black with a yellow deer, that indicates a construction item.
According to University College London and madeinchicagomuseum.com, the TootsieToy brand has its origins in a range of miniature pewter cars in the form of charms, pins, and cuff links, introduced circa 1901 by the Chicago based Dowst Brothers company. The process of die-casting was first introduced to the world at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 when Charles Dowst observed a new machine known as the Line-O-Type. Mr. Dowst applied the process to the manufacture of various items, mainly miniature novelties, eventually producing the first diecast toys in 1910.
The earliest catalog to come out was produced in 1909. The first actual model car from the company was a 1911 closed limousine which was followed by a 1915 Ford Model T Open Tourer. The early cars were also used for tokens on game boards such as Monopoly (the most popular tokens created by Dowst were the flat-iron, the thimble, and the Scottie dog).
These toys had no trade name until 1922. The name TootsieToy was registered as a trademark on 11 March 1924, having been applied for on February 7, 1923.
Tootsie was the name of Theodore (Ted) Dowst’s daughter. Sometime before 1925 the TootsieToy name began to appear in catalogs and on boxes of automotive toys but did not appear on the undersides of castings themselves until 1926 or 1927; some unmarked castings were still being made after 1930. The 1930s were the most important for TootsieToys when the name and product came out punching with innovations to the castings and metals used that kept its products out front.
Len knows where he got each item, when, and why; but more often than not it is something given to him by friends, neighbors, and often items just arrive at his place. Take the John Deere walker – yes, there is one, and it is in Len’s barn. “It just showed up on my lawn one day,” says Len. “I don’t know if they meant it as a joke or not, but I love it.” Other things that just arrived on his stoop include toys, signs, the occasional mug and more. “I guess if someone has a John Deere collectible, they know where they can drop it off.”
Just as you start seeing red cars on the road right after you decide to buy a red car, John Deere collectibles and TootsieToys started appearing before Len’s eyes at shops and flea markets whenever he went out, which was (and still is) often. He started building displays for the collectibles in his office, then began to integrate items into his home décor, and then bit the bullet when he took over one bay of his two-car garage to display his growing collections. Len was putting together his Man Cave before that was a “thing.”
Remember the seren-dipity of the main ingredients of his collection? How is this … after driving his El Camino to his newly purchased land, he put the shovel into the ground for the first time only to find an El Camino TootsieToy. No joke. He still has the toy, and the car, as part of his overall collection. Another example happened when he was looking at a photograph from his grandfather’s estate and saw the 1938 station wagon his grandfather owned. The next day, he went into an antique shop found a TootsieToy of that same car.
Diversity is King
One thing that struck me about Len’s collection was the extreme variety of items licensed and made by John Deere. John Deere lamps. John Deere trains. John Deere billiard ball racks. A John Deere mouse for the computer. John Deere popcorn. John Deere silverware. A John Deere model car: Len points out that they only made one model car and went back to farm equipment. John Deere oil cans. John Deere Dixie Cups and dispenser. The list goes on forever, and Len has a little bit of everything.
When asked how he learned about the vast array of John Deere collectibles available, Len stated he “started talking with dealers and other collectors. I learned more from them than what is in a book.” Sometimes those interactions would lead to some unique discoveries, like a piece of advertising found in a wall that now hangs in the barn.
Look And Touch
Len takes a very interactive approach to his treasures. Grandchildren are invited to play, explore, and ask about anything and everything in his collection. While some collectors stay strictly with vintage, Len likes to keep things open. It does not matter if it is from 5 years ago or 70 years ago, it is the meaning behind it that matters. “John Deere items make me happy. They bring back good memories and allow me to share them with my friends and family. My grandchildren come over and go through everything, asking questions and playing with the toys. As they get older they ask more detailed questions, like how they worked or what they meant to me. This is how I am passing down my life experiences – by creating new memories for them.”
Some of his items, like some of the older signs or unique one-of-a-kind collectibles, have solid value, but nothing is worth more to Len than sharing his collections with others.