By Susan Barnard
When most farmers add a new tractor or piece of equipment, they build a shed. For Norm Mortensen of rural Crab Orchard, Nebraska, he just adds another shelf in the basement. Mortensen and his wife, Karen, have spent the last 35 years collecting toy tractors, miniature farm equipment, Coca-Cola memorabilia and other collectibles. Some are new, some used and some refurbished. Farmers seem to remember their first toy tractors they played with and many still have their old toys which are now collectibles. There’s a sentimental connection between toy tractors and farmers and what they grew up with, and the Mortensen’s are no exception.
Both Norm and Karen grew up on farms in the Omaha/Sarpy County area. Their early years of marriage and farming in the Omaha area resulted in numerous years of lost crops due to flooding. Norm was in search of ground with rolling hills, and this search led them to locating near Crab Orchard, Nebraska, nearly 50 years ago. Together they took a huge leap of faith, moved away from their families to farm and raise their family. They also began a lifetime hobby of collecting.
Norm and Karen have always liked going to auctions, flea markets, toy shows and road trips on junk jaunts.
“One year I gave Norm a subscription to the Toy Farmer magazine which listed upcoming toy auctions and that is when things really took off,” said Karen.
While Norm grew up with Case IH equipment on the farm, his collection includes Case IH, John Deere, Massey-Ferguson, International and more. The color palette for the most popular farm toy tractors includes International Harvester Red, John Deere Green, Minneapolis Moline Yellow and Ford Blue, among others. At least 80 percent of his collection also includes the original box. A room in the basement was dedicated to boxes until it became full and then Norm purchased an enclosed trailer and the boxes were moved to the shop.
In the early years of collecting, Norm and Karen would attend auctions together. Karen became the “runner” at auctions – meaning she’d run for coffee or a donut for Norm while he waited to bid on items he didn’t want to miss. There were times when Karen wouldn’t attend a sale, and if Norm was interested in bidding on something, he would give her a call at home and say, “run down to the basement and see if I have this one.” Karen said they never really had a set budget for collecting – but they didn’t go overboard either. “It was the thrill of the hunt at times,” said Norm. When he found himself at a flea market or auction, and a toy tractor or farm implement piece was sitting in a corner being overlooked, he knew its potential and what he could do to bring it back to life. And if he got it for a bargain, even better. He would tote his newly found items home in a cardboard box with handles, set it on the kitchen table, and the planning and restoring began.
In addition to collecting pieces, Norm found his passion in refurbishing the small replicas, which includes taking the item completely apart, sandblasting, repainting and putting on new decals. The 86-year old retired farmer still refurbishes toys for himself or other people who know his skill and quality of work. It’s not uncommon for their doorbell to ring and someone, perhaps a local farmer with their kids or grandkids, asking for a tour of Norm’s “tractor museum” in their basement. A request Norm is always happy to oblige, with a smile on his face and a genuine sense of pride in telling the story of the hundreds of pieces he’s spent nearly half his life collecting and refurbishing.
After spending the last 50 years on the farm, the Mortensen’s have decided it is time to take yet another leap of faith in their marriage and to downsize, move to town and begin another journey in life. Part of the downsizing includes the sale of the hundreds of toys they have collected over the years.
They held their farm equipment sale on April 2, 2022 and the first of three other auctions was held June 10, 2022 at the Gage County Fairgrounds in Beatrice which featured the sale of over 233 tractors, semis and other memorabilia. Two more auctions will be held following this sale. The Auctioneers of Beatrice (Dennis Heinrichs, Rick Jurgens, Gale Hardin and Ryan Sommerhalder) have overseen the Mortensen sales. Norm and Karen couldn’t be happier with the service, time and dedication that they have provided to them.
“This is the first time we have ever done four consecutive sales for the same customer,” said Dennis Heinrichs, one of the auctioneers. “We’ve done three, but never four and we’ve never done a total sale of strictly toys and collectibles. It’s definitely taken some planning and organizing.”
The Mortensen’s will keep a few special pieces, such as the original first tractors that their sons, David and Dean, played with as kids. When asked about how he will feel seeing his collection sold at auction, it spawned a tug of emotions for Norm.
“It’ll be hard to see things sell, but honestly I’m excited to see who all buys them and knowing they will be well taken care of for future generations is a pretty neat thing,” said Norm.
The day of the first toy auction over 100 people filled the Gage County 4-H building and buyers from across Nebraska who couldn’t attend the sale had secured bids with the auctioneers. It was an emotional day for the Mortensen’s, but seeing people like the little boy who went home with a John Deere silage cutter like his grandpa uses, or the new grandma who was starting a toy tractor collection for her grandson, go home with some of their prized pieces, made the day all worth it for Norm and Karen.
When asked if he had any advice to people who are wanting to start a new collection such as tractors or other memorabilia, Norm said “start slow and don’t buy everything at once. It’s been a great hobby for us that we’ve enjoyed. We’ve met a lot of great people and traveled to a lot of places together.”
Susan Barnard is an Adult Interstate Compact Probation Transfer Coordinator for Nebraska State Probation and was a former Norris Public Power District employee for 16 years.