BRILLION — One look at John VanHandel’s toilet seat says it all: This man certainly loves Allis-Chalmers.
“Pretty nice, isn’t it?” said VanHandel, 79, noting the Allis-Chalmers logo and Persian orange color gracing the upstairs bathroom’s toilet seat. “I got that in Dyersville (Iowa). I didn’t have one, so I bought it. What can I say? I like Allis-Chalmers.”
Indeed, practically every room in VanHandel’s Calumet County home features something relating to Allis-Chalmers.
Most of the items are painstakingly arranged in a converted upstairs bedroom, which features more than 180 Allis-Chalmers toy tractors and a few other tractor brands. He grew up on a dairy farm but never owned toy tractors as a child; he first bought one at the age of 56 and has been collecting ever since.
VanHandel’s Allis-Chalmers collection also includes hats, signs, pictures, jigsaw puzzles and clothing, as well as a miniature windmill, lampshade, pedal tractor, clock, dustpan, ashtray, milk can, lawn chair, wind chime, lawn tractor and beer stein, to name a few.
Outside, a wagon wheel, bench and larger windmill are painted orange, as is the mailbox, designed to resemble an Allis-Chalmers tractor. His truck features an Allis-Chalmers license plate attachment and stickers affixed to the doors.
And, of course, VanHandel owns a full-size tractor housed in the backyard — a 1938 Allis-Chalmers B with a one-row cultivator.
“Dad mainly had Allis-Chalmers on the farm when we were younger, so that’s what I’ve stayed with,” said VanHandel, wearing an Allis-Chalmers shirt, hat, suspenders and jacket. “I bought that (B model) about 15 years ago to remember the Allis-Chalmers tractors we had on the farm.”
VanHandel was raised on a 30-cow dairy farm owned by his parents, Ted and Angeline, in the Brown County community of Shirley. His father’s first new Allis-Chalmers was a WD model, and the last Allis-Chalmers he bought was a D17 model in 1959.
VanHandel first drove one of his father’s Allis-Chalmers’ tractors as a young teen in the early 1950s.
Betty, his wife of 56 years, grew up one mile down the road from the VanHandels’ farm. They knew each other virtually their entire lives, attending grade school and high school together before marrying in 1962.
Betty’s father preferred Farmall tractors, so VanHandel created a playful display inside his house of an Allis-Chalmers WD tractor engaging in a tug-of-war with a Farmall M tractor. With Betty sitting within earshot, VanHandel diplomatically said he didn’t know which tractor won the tug-of-war, but his grin and tone of voice indicated what he truly thought.
Said Betty: “I’m glad he collects things that he enjoys. He has a lot.”
VanHandel began collecting Allis-Chalmers items in 1995 when he attended the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville with his younger brother, Gordon, who also collects Allis-Chalmers products in the Brown County community of Wayside.
“That’s how it all started for me,” VanHandel said. “We came home with the trunk and backseat full of Allis-Chalmers toy tractors. One night there was a snowstorm but we still brought every toy we bought into the hotel room because we were afraid someone would break into our car and take them all.”
VanHandel displays his toy tractor collection every now and then at shows. His son, Mark, created signs for each tractor indicating the model and years they were produced. Typically, it takes VanHandel an hour to unload the tractors and four more hours to meticulously arrange them.
“I’ve met a lot of people at the shows,” he said. “Some worked for Allis-Chalmers or had relatives who worked for Allis-Chalmers, and they stop by to chat and re-live the memories. That’s a lot of fun.”
Occasionally, someone asks if the collection is for sale. To which VanHandel said with a laugh: “They wouldn’t have a big enough pocketbook. These things mean too much to me.”