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Published May 11, 2012, 12:00 AM

Tinkering with toy tractors

Man dedicates decades to model machine repair
BORUP, Minn. – Jim Gill had no idea what he started when he picked up that first toy tractor in need of repair.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

BORUP, Minn. – Jim Gill had no idea what he started when he picked up that first toy tractor in need of repair.

He can’t tell you how many toy tractors ago that was, but he has spent almost three decades resurrecting stricken John Deer or Case models and displaying some of the results at shows.

It all began when his own kids – two boys and a girl – came to him with broken toys in need of a fix.

Soon the word got out that he was handy in the shop and broken toy tractors began showing up at his farm near Borup.

“What they bring me, I fix,” he says.

Case in point: a couple of bicycles and a tricycle that he has repaired and freshly painted that adorn the entryway of his shop. That’s to say, his small shop, a converted two-stall garage, next door to his big machine shop for real tractors.

“That’s new to me,” he says of the bicycles and tricycles finding their way to his shop. “I do like that challenge,” he adds, “If I can win.”

The shop is a jumble of tools, drawers stuffed with parts, workbenches and display cases.

Some repair jobs come to him in rusted pieces.

Gill’s specialty is taking a toy tractor in need of reconditioning, and customizing it to match a real tractor that once toiled in the fields for sentimental farmers wanting a keepsake.

“I make the little one like the big one,” Gill says, “as close as you can.”

Nostalgia, in fact, is the reason for most of his business these days. Most customers are older. Fewer kids, it seems, are playing with toy farm tractors in the age of video games.

“I have a customer base pretty well-established and they keep me as busy as I want to be,” says Gill.

For years, when he needed one part he ordered two, in order to have a spare on hand. These days, though, he just orders the part he needs.

At 76, he’s well into retirement. He quit active farming at age 57 to try his hand at being a crop adjuster and crop insurance agent.

During his heyday as a toy tractor fixer, Jim and Helen Gill would attend seven shows a year. Now they’re down to one, in West Fargo.

Helen doesn’t share Jim’s passion for tractors but tolerates his hobby.

“I clean them, I polish them,” she says. “He’s out in the shop, and I’m in the house. We get along great.”

Jim adds: “It keeps the lights on and keeps us out of each other’s hair, and it does help the gray matter, too,” not to mention giving his arthritic fingers a regular workout.

His own collection is dispersed between display cases in his shop, entryway to his farmhouse, and office.

“In my collection,” he says with a smile, “there are no broken toys.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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