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Farm Toy Story: Master Craftsman Brings Memories to Life

January 28, 2020

Chris Bennett

On a steamy summer morning in 1995, Mitch Sisson’s past returned with a metallic clank, unceremoniously wrapped in a stack of letters and stuffed into the back of his mailbox. A work-day later, he pulled the baking wad from the box, sat down at his kitchen table, and began the near-automated process of sifting through the pile, while his childhood patiently waited beneath the clutter of correspondence, bills and flyers. At the bottom of the stack, Sisson picked up a thin catalog, peeled back the cover, and stared in wonder as every toy tractor he had played with as a boy rolled off the pages. Riding the miniature tractors down the forgotten corridors of memory, Sisson’s life made a fortuitous pivot: A toy maker was born.

Almost 25 years later, Sisson’s handiwork has established him as one of America’s top farm toy restorers. His meticulous craftsmanship coaxes memory from metal, and Sisson’s story mirrors the shared experience of farm toy enthusiasts across the nation. Nestled on a perch of near-sacred reverence for the faithful, farm toys are a perpetual link between agriculture’s past and present, inseparably bonded with childhood, innocence and family.

The Magical Toy Room

Most evenings in northeast Mississippi’s Webster County, outside the tiny community of Cumberland, Sisson unwinds as a family man, chewing on supper and small talk with his wife and kids, before napping on the living room couch. As night takes hold and the house quietens, Sisson rises and ascends a staircase to a tiny, 20’-by-14’ workshop above his garage to organize, assemble, paint, grind and cut—all in an effort to recapture yesterday. It’s as near to temporary bliss as he can imagine: no trials of life, no politics, and no worries.

“Some nights I’ll have something on my mind all day to try, but other nights I’ll do whatever type of work feels right at the time,” he describes. “Maybe that’ll be painting or maybe it could be working on wheels, or even something else, but it’s all a challenge, and it’s not work at all. I get to play with other people’s toys and I’m deeply respectful of that.”

Sisson’s workshop is a mix of tool clutter, metal shelving, wooden work benches, drill press, vise-grips by the dozen, and as an endless supply of tractor paraphernalia. Chest-high display shelves hold 30-plus tractors in various states of repair, as well as boxes of toy parts, bodywork material, glue and paint. Seated in an office chair at a work table illuminated by fluorescent lights, Sisson wears cheater magnifying specs and peers eye-level into the undercarriage of a toy tractor fastened in a homemade apparatus designed to securely hold a single vehicle upside down. Several hours of work later, well past midnight, Sisson descends the staircase, begrudgingly leaving behind the magical room of toys. “I force myself to go to bed. Some days I can’t wait to get back up there in my shop.”

“It’s hard to believe,” Sisson laughs. “I love these tractors so much, but when I first started, I never knew anyone else cared or that there was even such a thing as a farm toy show. Honestly, I thought I was the only nut in the world.”

Back to the Beginning

Growing up in the farming community of BelleFountaine, 20 miles west of Cumberland, Sisson spent his youth hauling hay, herding cattle and driving a tractor for his farming uncles. “I never intended to do nothing but farm—and then the 1980s arrived.”

With Sisson’s farming hopes dashed by an agriculture economy running on fumes, he chose drafting school and a career in civil engineering. In the mid-1990s, he bought a tractor to help clean up family land, and within weeks, his mailbox held the farm toy catalog. “I didn’t remember requesting the catalog; it just came. It was for Dakotah toys and I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I opened it up and stared at some of the exact tractors I had with my brother, Pepper, as a little kid. Everything came flooding back just by looking at pictures.”

By coincidence, days prior to receiving the Dakotah catalog, Sisson had stumbled across the roughshod skeletons of several of his childhood toy tractors in the attic. He jotted down the corresponding parts from the catalog, ordered replacements, and painstakingly refurbished the vehicles. At Christmas, Pepper unwrapped a motherlode of gifts: three, like-new John Deere tractors—5020, 4440 and 8630 at 1/16th scale. Sisson’s toy ride was about to kick into high gear.

With few options in Mississippi, Sisson searched for toy brethren via a relatively new medium: the internet. Farm toy sites and boards occupy an entire subculture in today’s online world, but in 1996, when Sisson typed in “toy farm equipment,” he found a single reference linked to a rudimentary (no photo or graphic capability) discussion board with three participants from Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska.

“It was slow at first, but I built up a network and guys found out about me, mailed their tractors for repair jobs, and I’ve been going ever since. A lot of the time it’s a treasured childhood toy and they want it fixed. Sometimes it’s a serious collector who has all of a particular series except for one more. For others, they still have a days-gone-by link to something special in life and they want that memory restored. Some people just want whatever their daddy had.”

Many of the farm toys refurbished by Sisson were originally manufactured rapidly and in high volume, making some of the models susceptible to diminished quality. Sisson applies a slow hand, reworks details once missed, and produces toys that look sharper than when they came off the assembly line. The repair roster has grown far beyond tractors for Sisson, including backhoes, combines, cultivators, grain buggies, grater blades, pickers, manure spreaders, spray tanks, trailers, trucks and much more.

On balance, most of Sisson’s repairs are on toys from the 1960s and 1970s, but a substantial amount range from 1940 to the late 1950s. Some arrive in good condition and require a simple addition; others need a complete rebuild with parts from scratch, often with brass due its relatively conducive soldering quality. Sisson strips down individual pieces to bare metal with a sand blaster (or glass beads when a slightly softer touch is needed), and then primes and paints beyond factory floor condition. A fastidious touch is needed on the finest details, such as tanks made out of PVC or tank ranks built from brass tubing. “I just finished a Ford backhoe from the 1970s and it was a challenge. Something like that is a high-detail toy and harder to work on than the sandbox toys from the 1960s.”

In Sisson’s experience, a Ford 9600 tractor with a cab remains one of the most alluring toys for many collectors, he explains: “The cab is what makes it hard to find and everybody is looking. In some ways, the parts to the 9600 are more important than the tractor.”

A long line of 20 to 30 tractors usually waits on Sisson’s shelves for refurbishment. Typically, he dismantles a vehicle upon receipt and places the component parts inside a box, ensuring no mixing or switches occur. He tries to accommodate all requests, but the flood of repair orders is difficult to manage, and he often considers slowing the flow: “I’ve been saying I’d turn people away for the last two or three years, but it never fails: Somebody will call with their daddy’s toy tractor and ask if I can get it ready before his birthday. How do you say no to that?”

“You Can’t Buy This Quality”

Highly familiar with Sisson’s ability, Clay West, 47, is a sales rep for Wade, Inc., a John Deere dealership in Vardaman, Miss. West farmed for 21 years and is an avid farm toy collector, including 1/64th scale semi-trucks: “I loved my farm toys as a little boy, and kept most of mine in the house and out of the sandbox. I got away from them in my teens, and then it all came back in my mid-20s because I didn’t want to lose that part of my youth. I collect more than I need, but I hope I’m doing this way past my retirement.”

West fears farm toy collectors are a dying breed. “I see a younger generation with fewer people that care about these toys, but this needs to be passed onto the next generation as something to enjoy and appreciate.”

Sisson’s repair and refurbishment skills are second to none, according to West. “On a scale of 1 to 10, Mitch is a 17,” West emphasizes. “When it comes to restoring, he’s a perfectionist, and it’s going to be done right with no flaws. I’ve got several pieces he worked on and you can’t buy this quality—his skills are that good.”

Sisson’s reputation extends far beyond Mississippi borders, West continues, “His work is known across the country and his reputation goes beyond toys to being a great guy in general. At toy shows, everybody wants to get Mitch off to the side and share with him for five minutes. People want to talk toys, or farming, or life in general with him. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

How does West explain Sisson’s motivation? “Mitch is like all of us—born and raised around farming and the country. These toys are hard to explain, but something gets instilled in you as a child. You get older and recognize the value and blessing in them, and you won’t let go. That drives him like it drives all of us.”

Four Times Unlucky

The farm toy community is built around “all the right reasons,” Sisson contends, and filled with individuals motivated by “sincerity and passion, and not cutthroat. Back when I started, Mr. Richard Stewart, a long-time Illinois collector, told me, ‘Toy tractors collect the nicest people.’ He was right.”

“People box up their toys and mail them to me sight unseen,” Sisson continues. “They trust me with their treasures even though they don’t know me, and that is a special thing.”

Attachments to farm toys run deep, Sisson explains, with links to family and heritage playing a big role. “The fact is a lot of little kids don’t play with farming toys at all today, but not so long ago a lot of kids did, so the toys are part of a chain connecting to a time when farming was part of almost everyone’s life. One thing for sure, the people involved in farm toys are truly decent and have shared with me over and over.”

Case in point. In 2009, an Arkansas collector mailed a Case tractor for repair—Sisson’s maiden work on an orange-and-tan model. After painting during the heat of the day and encountering bubbling issues, Sisson sent the collector a picture and an explanatory note, and began the entire process again, stripping the tractor down and repainting. On the second go-round, Sisson scratched the paint job, and was forced back to the starting line. Once again, he stripped down the Case and repainted for a third time—job well done. Sisson added four tractor weights, individually mounted to the front of the vehicle, boxed the finished product, and mailed it to Arkansas.

During transit, the tractor weights broke free and pounded the vehicle each time the box moved. “When the tractor arrived, it looked like somebody had set it on a fence post and blasted it with a shotgun. I promised to make good on it, and once again, after I got it back in the mail, I stripped it and started over.”

After the fourth overhaul was complete, Sisson secured each weight with scrupulous care, wrapped the tractor in extensive cushioning material, and placed the package in a carport closet for shipping.

The next day, Sisson’s house burned.

A Humbled Man

Up until 2009, the carport closet doubled as Sisson’s workshop, and when the fire roared through the house, the flames claimed all the items up for repair. He wasn’t prepared for the reaction in the farm toy community: “I figured it was time to quit, and called everyone to tell them I’d replace their tractors, but all my friends in the hobby were right there for me. Even beyond the guy in Arkansas, nobody was upset. In fact, it was the opposite. All my internet friends sent me tools and tractor parts, and got me right back in the middle of everything. It was so humbling and showed how many good people are in agriculture and farm toys.”

“It was unreal. My internet buddies hit me hard with help and I actually ended up getting four Case tractors in the mail. I redid one of them special, and mailed it to Arkansas. I’ll never forget the decency of everyone involved. Some of these tractors are worth a lot of money and you can take advantage of people fast, but that’s just not the kind of people I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with.”

The Storytellers

Part of Sisson’s toy repair motivation stems from a sense of altruism toward others, emphasizes Brian Cantrell, an airline pilot originally from central Arkansas who currently resides in the northwest tip of Mississippi in Desoto County. “Mitch is just such a good-hearted fella. He really enjoys serving others and loves to see their reactions when the toys come back better than new. He'd tell you the hobby is all about the people.”

Cantrell, 48, grew up in farming, following his father and grandfather down the rows, and the link to farm toys is unbreakable, he describes: “The connection is beyond the physical toys, and it goes right back to everything about farming. This is my heritage.”

Focusing on the tractors of his childhood, Cantrell customizes the pieces to match the precise modifications used by his father. “I’ll take an 806 (IH) and turn it into the exact machine that we had, because the toy manufacturer didn’t have the wheels like my dad did, or the weights like my dad had, or the buggy top.”

However, beyond paying homage to the machinery that once rolled across his family farm, Cantrell also places a premium on a vehicle that eluded him as a child: a 1/16th scale cotton picker. In November 2018, Cantrell found his holy grail item. “Cotton was neglected by companies like Ertl, which is based in Iowa, and there just wasn’t much demand for a picker in the Midwest. Last year, at the National Farm Toy Show, I found a 1/16th International 2-row cotton picker like the one we operated during my childhood. It was scratch-built completely from brass. I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning—just a very sentimental find.”

Chip Fowler, 43, grew up in a Lee County farming family in Plantersville, Miss., and echoes Cantrell’s perspective, describing Sisson as “highly respected, detail-oriented, creative and patient.”

Fowler has an affinity for International Harvester toys at 1/16th scale, particularly models he has owned or operated. As a child, Fowler was frustrated by the standard issue of most tractor models, and the lack of realistic, on-farm modifications for the toy vehicles. When word of Sisson’s prowess reached Fowler, he took an IH 1466 off his toy shelf, and knocked on Sisson’s door. Fowler operated an IH 1466 with a 4-post canopy, and he wanted Sisson to create a 1/16th canopy duplicate.

“Mitch came out to my house and took measurements on my life-size 1466 in order to match the dimensions precisely on the toy. He took the data, plugged it into his engineering programs, built a template to work off, and then built an exact copy of the 4-post canopy on my toy model. I’m talking about as good of quality as you could possibly want, and that is something else because there is not a straight or square surface on those roll-guards, but he nailed it perfectly.”

Sisson, suggests Fowler, is driven by a form of “storytelling.”

“I think Mitch, myself and all the people involved in farm toys are pushed by a kind of storytelling. I spent many a day playing with tractors under the shade tree beside my grandparents. That is something easy to hold onto and so many people across the country know what I’m talking about. This farming life is what we have in common and we’re not going to let go of it.”

Tractors and Tears

Sisson’s work is a labor of love, and he has repaired tractors for collectors across the U.S., extending to multiple foreign countries. Sisson was an integral part of establishing Mississippi’s first farm toy show in Starkville in 2001, an annual event he continues to promote. At 51, Sisson is just hitting stride and eyes many more years of farm toy labor: “Maybe I never really grew up or maybe I just never grew out of love for toys. At least I never lost that spark.”

The link between toys and childhood never breaks within a person, he emphasizes, plainly evidenced by the reaction of countless farmers. “It’s a special thing when you can hand a man back a piece of his past. I’ve had guys come to pick up their tractors and start crying right in front of me. They’re so appreciative because the past is repaired and brought back to life.”

What started with a mail-order toy catalog stuffed in a mailbox has blossomed into the handiwork of a master craftsman. Simply, Sisson’s workshop is a place of magic. “Deep inside, the sparks from childhood are always there and I don’t think people really ever grow up,” Sisson adds. “I’ll tell you a secret: It’s not toys I restore—it’s memories.”

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