If the difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys, then Frank Turnage is a little of both, perhaps a little shaded toward the boy.
The Maury City, Tenn., farmer has a huge collection of toy tractors lining every inch of wall space in his office. He also has a lineup of big antique tractors and harvesters, some gleaming, some hurting a bit, stashed away on the Turnage lot or under the equipment shed.
A small part of his collection is prized, like the 1/16-scale model toys that he keeps under lock and key at his home. Or the full-size, fully restored John Deere Number 8, Deere's first two-row cotton picker, sitting in the parking lot in front of his office. He knows of only three in existence. It's the only picker that unloaded from the right side.
But most of this stuff is for playing with, Turnage insists. “I don't take collecting as seriously as those folks up there,” he says, pointing a thumb in a northerly direction.
“Northern collectors want to know the history of every piece they collect and keep any toy models in the original box. I always thought they were more particular than the people down South. But that's because we're always too busy working,” he said, smiling.
And on occasion, playing. Turnage is kid first, collector second. There are no toys imprisoned in boxes and shrink wrap here. Turnage doesn't mind a little scratch in John Deere green or Case IH red, as long as a neighborhood kid visiting the place with his dad got a kick out of playing with an artifact.
The Turnage collection features about 500 miniature tractors, combines and cotton pickers from 1/32-scale to peddle models and about 50 full-size combines, pickers and antique tractors. They're red, green, orange, yellow, blue and all shades in between.
“I like anything that is related to the 50s,” Turnage said when asked about his favorites. “I was a teenager then. My dad worked for the state highway department, and we didn't have the money to buy a lot of things.”
Turnage is reliving the era today, restoring a 1957 T-Bird and a 1955 Crown Victoria, automobiles he could only admire as a young adult. He recalls, “Back then, you were just surviving, trying to get enough money to go to the field. You didn't think much about buying a car.”
Life was slower-paced, and people had less money in those days. “But we didn't have the stress like we do now,” Turnage says. “It was a more relaxing time. Right now, farming is stressful. You stump your toe, you lose what you made the last 10 years.”
On a recent day, Turnage's 10-year-old grandson, Seth Turnage, an honors student at Alamo Elementary School, visited his grandfather's salvage operation on Hwy. 88 in Maury City. He quickly located each toy that Turnage talked about and pulled it from the shelf. Most are models of diesel, two-cylinder tractors, the workhorses that helped build American agriculture.
“They had a distinctive sound,” Turnage said. “I can remember as a kid seeing this old man sitting on a John Deere A down at the gin. It was popping and shaking the scales.”
Seth fetches a toy John Deere A from its parking space in Turnage's office and proudly hands it to a visitor. While he handles the tractor with care, there is a spark of encouragement in his eyes to “go ahead, take it for a spin on the floor.”
Collectors like Turnage are special people. They can look at any model of any tractor ever made in the United States and tell you the year it was made and the modifications the manufacturer made from the previous model. They subscribe to magazines like Toy Farmer and Two Cylinder, the latter a John Deere publication.
Every time Turnage drives down a country road, his eyes dart from brush pile to brush pile, shop to shop, keeping his eyes and ears open. Under that lump of honeysuckle, a unpolished gem may sit, waiting to be discovered.
Last year, one such “pile of junk,” a John Deere GP Wide-Tread, was auctioned off by treasure hunters in Iowa for a breathtaking $170,000, enough to get even the casual collector's blood flowing. The experimental GP, thought to have long ago been taken by scrap, was Deere's first tractor with pedestal steering and an adjustable rear tread.
Finds like that are exceptionally rare these days, notes Turnage, although the aforementioned tractor sat in full view of a major highway for decades before it was found.
Today, you can't build a collection like Turnage's without spending some serious money. Most antiques are in the hands of collectors, people who expect to get top dollar from a sale.
It used to be easy, though. In the 1980s, Turnage would drive his pickup to Memphis on Friday, the day before the flea market opened up at the Memphis Fairgrounds. He would purchase dozens of toy tractors that nobody wanted and carry them out in armloads to his truck.
“I used to could get 20 to 25 of them at a time,” Turnage says. “That dropped down to five, and finally it dried up completely. There are more collectors now, and everything that wasn't in the hands of collectors is gone.”
Finding valuable, full-size antiques used to happen more often, too. There was the time a Turnage truck driver located a 1952 John Deere High Crop tractor sitting out in an junkyard, and Turnage bought it for five cents on the dollar of what it's worth today.
“The driver was delivering a cotton picker in Forrest City, Ark., and I had heard that there was a High Crop tractor somewhere around there, but I never did take the time to look for it,” Turnage said.
“I asked the man delivering the picker to look around and see if he could find any old tractors. I couldn't believe it, but he found out where one was.”
Turnage soon was on the phone with the owner, who said he wouldn't take anything less than $500 for the tractor. “I said, ‘if you feel that way to start with, there's no sense in me trying to talk you down.’”
The man cursed, perhaps sensing that he had been had by the easy-going Turnage. “The truck driver paid him, and they went to the man's house to pick it up. The seller and wife were getting a divorce, and she ran out and said, ‘Wait a minute, that tractor's half mine.’ She asked what he was selling it for, and the husband used his head real quick and said, ‘$100.’ She said, ‘If that's the case, then get the old thing out of the way.’
“I told another collector about it, and he said he would give me $3,500 for it sight unseen. I decided to hold on to it. Today, that tractor is probably worth $12,000.”
Turnage has owned two John Deere Number 8s, Deere's first two-row cotton picker, built in 1949. On the 50th anniversary of the release of the picker, a Deere representative called Turnage and said he'd like to purchase and restore his Number 8 for the occasion, then store it at the John Deere Museum in Moline.
“I told them no, but they shouldn't have any trouble finding another one. About two weeks later, they called back and asked again. They hadn't found one. I told them no again.
“But later, I figured it was greedy of me to keep this tractor. It could rust out and one day it might not be worth anything. But if I let John Deere have it, they'll fix it up and anytime me, my grandkids or my great grandkids went to Moline, they could see it.
“So I called them back and told them I would sell it. They came down, fixed it up and showed at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in 1999. It made me proud to look at it. But I realized how much I missed it.”
As luck would have it, Turnage did what John Deere could not. “I had a friend in Phoenix, Ariz., who custom-picked occasionally who found me another one.” Turnage agreed to send him two other two-row pickers for the friend to sell in Mexico in return for sending the Number 8 to west Tennessee. Today it's fully restored.
A 1958 John Deere 503 tractor — one of Seth's favorites — came to Turnage's lot from Greenfield, Tenn., and only has 1,200 hours on it. For that acquisition, Turnage happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“It was 1989, and the man's wife was mowing the yard with the tractor. It had a hand clutch on it, she didn't know how to drive it and she ran the tractor into the house. Right then they decided they needed to get rid of it. I just happened to be driving by after that and bought it.”
Sometimes it required trudging through briars and underbrush with both men and equipment to jack up an old antique and get it onto a flatbed truck. Turnage and his crew once disturbed a family of rabbits nesting inside an old picker and the critters shot off in all directions once the big machine started coming off the ground. Not only were rabbit hearts pounding, “We were all bumping heads trying to get away from the rabbits.”
Turnage found a tractor for his recent bride Becky and didn't have to drive a mile. “As a child, she loved a little tractor called a Ford Dexter. I was sitting here at the office one day, and a junk dealer drove by the shop hauling one. I chased him down and made an offer on it.”
Becky has returned the favor by helping Turnage start another toy collection which feature farm animals driving various tractors and harvesters.
Turnage's first antique was a 1953, 70 Series John Deere tractor, which he bought in 1985. “I got hooked after that.” Turnage also has an entire line of full-size 30 Series John Deere tractors. “That's very unusual. I got them from all over the United States.”
Prices of toy antique models can range from $10 to several hundred dollars depending on the year they were made, whether or not they are originals and the number of toys manufactured. But the most common theme of the Turnage collection is not so much value as it is fun.
Several peddle tractors sit on a shelf above the door leading into Turnage's office, an open invitation to neighborhood kids to come in and look around. His only instruction is to be careful with the toys.
“Kids come here, and they're fascinated by what they see,” said Turnage, who has trimmed his farming operation considerably over the last few years but continues to custom-harvest cotton in south Texas and west Tennessee.
His grandson's appreciation for antique tractors and toys began before he could talk. “Whenever I would bring Seth up here when he was two years old, he would always go toward the old tractors,” Turnage said. “He couldn't talk, but he could imitate the sound of the old engines, ‘pop, pop, pop.’”
Ironically, “Pop” is what Turnage's grandchildren, Seth, and his sister, Anna, call him. The joy they receive from the toys on the shelf and the big antiques in the yard “is 90 percent of the fun of collecting,” Turnage said.