Gunder-friend Productions

biography of Helen D. Gunderson

The History of My 1/8 Scale Model M Farmall Toy Tractor

by Helen D. Gunderson
May 22, 2015

(Note: I have given the toy tractor to Practical Farmers of Iowa to sell
on EBay to raise funds for the PFI land transfer project.)


When I grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, I was fortunate to have frequent and long visits to my grandparents’ farm that was three miles away from where my family lived. I loved both Grandma and Grandpa (John and DeElda Gunderson) but had a special affinity for Grandpa who farmed with horses and a Model M Farmall tractor. His son, my father, was an Iowa State graduate with degrees in mechanical and agricultural engineering and worked for John Deere in Waterloo in his first years after college. Then Dad and Mother (Deane and Marion Gunderson) along with my older sister, brother, and I moved back to northwest Iowa where Dad began farming in 1945.
I recall the family had two Model M Farmall tractors. Dad kept one for several years after Grandpa died in 1956, but Dad was a John Deere loyalist with the latest in the company’s tractors.

John Gunderson harvests corn, circa 1947
My brother, Charles Gunderson of Rolfe, says that Dad had once told him that Grandpa was one of the last farmers in the Rolfe area to get a row-crop tractor. It was an “M” in 1939, the first year International Harvestor manufactured the “M." Grandpa’s serial number was less than 100.
For the most part, after graduating from Iowa State in physical education in 1967, I lived in other states but returned to Iowa in 1993. Sometime during that journey, I obtained two toy tractors–one a Farmall, the other a John Deere like the kind Dad had in the 1970s. I donated them to either a church or other non-profit silent auction a few years ago.

Although I chose to live in the Ames area rather than my home county, I took a new interest in my rural heritage, developed a documentary project about the neighborhood where I had grown up, and began managing the farm land I own in my home county.

Model M Farmall at DeMoss Farm near Gilbert, Iowa
In the 1990s, I occasionally fantasized about the possibility of buying a used Model M Farmall and keeping it at Mother’s and Dad’s farm, considering that they had plenty of buildings but no longer much farm equipment; whereas, I had no buildings on my land. But alas, Dad was not game for me to get a tractor, and I had no idea what I would do with a real tractor in the Ames area.

Mother was always the one who arranged for Christmas and birthday gifts from her and Dad to my five siblings and me. So it came as a complete surprise to me on one Christmas in the mid-to-late 1990s that I would receive a gift that Dad, himself, had picked out for me. It was a 1/8–scale Model M Farmall, larger than any toy tractor I had ever seen. I did not recall him being the kind of farmer who loved to go to threshing reunions and farm progress shows where he might have seen toy tractors. I believe, in this case, he has seen the tractor advertised in a farm magazine as a special edition tractor for the 1995 Indiana Farm Progress Show.

I was deeply touched by his thoughtfulness and understanding of my interests, especially since there were many times when he did not seem to understand who I was or appreciate my projects. He died in 2010.

The large toy tractor sat conspicuously in my living room for years. Many young (and some older) visitors have played with it. However, I have had mixed feelings, in general, about Farmall tractors after learning decades ago that many historians consider the Farmall to be one of the culprits that created the Dust Bowl. In watching a documentary in recent years about the Dust Bowl, I realize that much of today’s agriculture continues to over-utilize the land in ways parallel to what happened during the years leading up to the Dust Bowl. It’s as if some people never learn.

As much as I loved Grandpa’s Farmall, I realized it represented row-crop farming that has long been promoted in Iowa and big in my family. Dad has said that even his grand father, Charles L. Gunderson, was big on row crop farming. Grandpa, too.  

John Gunderson's draft horses, circa 1922
Grandpa was known to be in the field with his team of horses to plant corn from the first rays of sun in the morning, when he could just begin to see the planter guide mark in the soil, to that last rays of sun at the end of the day.

Deane Gunderson and his eight-row cornplanter
pulled by a Model M Farmall, circa 1963
Another part of the family heritage is that in the early 1950s, when four-row cornplanters were about the biggest that any farmer in Iowa had, Dad combined two, four-row planters to make an eight-row planter that could still cross-check the corn. Unfortunately, I did not start taking home movies until the 1970s. The good news is that I have footage of Dad farming in the mid-1970s, including a scene where he had connected two bean drills to plant soybeans. The short video is posted on YouTube with 46,860 visitors to date.
Over time, I wanted gentler accessories and images for my living room, and the tractor got relegated to the basement near a large peg board on the wall that holds my saw, hammer, and other tools and feels somewhat like Grandpa’s and Dad’s respective shops.

Although my home is often messy, I love photos of the clean and simple storage areas of Shaker homes and have often said that one of my hobbies is that of “decluttering.” I get the bug–at least to a minor degree–at least once a year. Having had my 70th birthday in mid-April, I have gone into major decluttering mode, and if something was no longer a priority here, I wanted to find a good home for it and have fewer possessions as I move forward.

I have reconciled many of my mixed feelings about my heritage. And yet, I have decided that at this stage of my life, the toy Farmall tractor would serve the universe better if I could pass it along to someone else who would want it and be willing to buy it with the proceeds going to the Practical Farmers of Iowa land transference project. In my mind, without the kind of work that PFI and other organizations are doing in relation to land issues, it will become increasingly hard for people to have some of the better elements of the kind of agricultural heritage I had, or for the Midwest to have the kind of healthy farm practices and communities that many of us, who are associated with PFI, envision for the future.

Rest assured, there are still reminders of my heritage here. Grandpa’s and Grandma’s portraits sit in a small frame on a shelf in my living room next to a carved, wooden horse statue that had been Grandpa’s. May those items and the feelings associated with them always be in my home and part of my memories.