DYERSVILLE, Iowa — An iconic Dyersville company recently reached a milestone anniversary, as Ertl, now a part of TOMY, celebrated 75 years in the toy business.
It was 1945 when Fred Ertl Sr. began making scale models of farm tractors in his basement in Dubuque.
What started as a hobby soon led to the Ertl Co. that produced toy tractors and farm implements that have become known worldwide.
“Fred Ertl Sr. immigrated to the U.S. from Germany, landed in the Dubuque area and worked there as a journeyman mold-maker,” explained Ertl historian and Senior Vice President of Marketing Bill Walters. “When World War II ended in 1945, the government stopped lots of contracts, and there were labor issues around the country. Fred Ertl Sr. ended up without a job.
“He tried to figure out what he could do to support his family and wanted to make some toys for his kids. He ended up finding some scrap aluminum and made some sand cast molds. He melted that aluminum in the furnace in his basement and started making toy tractors.”
From those humble beginnings, Ertl’s toys soon became well known in the area, and his scale model tractors were selling out as quickly as he could produce them.
“He took them to a local store in Dubuque and they said, ‘We’d love to sell them. How many can you make?’ And so he started selling them around the area,” said Walters. “He would take toy tractors around in the trunk of his car and sell them to various retailers.
“Then, in 1946, he got in contact with a gentleman at John Deere and was able to get the John Deere license. From there, they just started getting bigger into it.”
Ertl continued to expand, renting space in Dubuque and adding on several times before deciding a larger location was needed and moving its operations to Dyersville.
“They built their first facility in Dyersville in 1959. The original building is south of Theisen’s or behind the Casey’s,” Walters said. “Obviously, the company kept expanding and needed more space, so that’s when they built the building south of Highway 20, which is essentially where all the offices are. That’s also our main warehouse facility now, but back in the day, that was our manufacturing center.”
The company grew significantly in the early years, expanding its footprint in the industry.
“We were able to get additional licenses. In 1955, we got what at that time was International Harvester. We got a Case license and a Ford license — pretty much all the major tractor manufacturers. Allis Chalmers was one at the time as well,” said Walters. “We were producing quite a range.”
TOMY, based in Japan, has been the parent company of Ertl since 2011. The current Dyersville facility is the North American distribution center for the company.
“Pretty much everything we bring in for the John Deere dealerships, the Case IH dealerships or the farm stores goes through here,” Walters said. “Walmart, Target, you name it — it comes through Dyersville.”
Ertl’s 75th anniversary fell in October, but with COVID-19 impacting every aspect of life, the celebration was postponed.
Thanks to a Manufacturers Showcase exhibit at National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, visitors can still experience Ertl’s 75 years. The museum will sponsor its annual Summer Farm Toy Show on June 5 and 6.
Walters, who has been with Ertl since 1993, is a member of the museum’s 2020 Hall of Fame class.
“Farm toys are just toys to some people, but they’re more than that to others. If you think about it, you’re kind of preserving history,” said Walters. “These tractors that were made 100 years ago — nobody uses them anymore. But you can still look at them from a toy aspect.”