Toy bulldozer promise results in a road trip

Bill Johnston collected 23 toy bulldozers after he retired from farming.  |  Supplied photo

An ailing father drew inspiration from toy models of heavy equipment he had worked with decades ago on the farm

“Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,” wrote Robert Service in his Klondike poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee.

I couldn’t help thinking of that admonition as I followed up on a purchase of a toy bulldozer collection for my late father.

When Alfred Kihn of Didsbury, Alta., reached his mid-80s and became more housebound, I began a toy collection for him, broadly defined as tractors he had once owned.

His two main careers of hauling pulpwood out of the Ontario bush, and then later as a Manitoba farmer, left me a long list of possibilities.

I got Dad’s favourites first: an International-Harvester 175 track loader from the mid-1960s, and an IH TD-15 bulldozer.

He remembered them well from 50 years earlier. In fact, Mom said the toys prompted his endless stories to visiting relatives and friends. Dad knew the sharp whistle of the turbo-charged engine on the 175. He recalled the weight of the dozer and how his tandem log truck could barely handle the heavy TD-15.

The toys filled in many hours as he would reminisce of his dozer days in the vast forests of Ontario’s north.

To start his farm collection, I ran ads in toy magazines seeking Dad’s tractors from the 1970s: an 830 Case with square fenders, a 65 horsepower Deutz, a WD-6 International, a Fordson Major, a 955 Caterpillar loader (for feedlot cleaning), and his faithful chore horse, a Model S Case. I never actually made much progress on that list.

However, I did find a list of toy dozers in a magazine classified ad. I called the owner and quickly made a deal to come out and buy his collection. He was 400 kilometres away, though, and I was busy. I set the deal aside for another day.

In his late 80s, the mists of dementia began to cloud Alfred’s mind. Those dozers, though, seemed to evoke lucid periods when he’d pick one up and tell a story. Mother attained sainthood listening to Dad’s stories over and over again.

In December 2016 and into his 90th year, Dad passed away, taking with him his bulldozer memories. I handed off his beloved IHC 175 toy loader to his only living brother, Walter.

In the fall of 2018, while flipping through an old toy collector’s magazine, I spotted the ad for the same bulldozer collection. Wow. I’d forgotten. I’d better phone. I’d better keep my promise.

After explaining who I was, Bill Johnston remembered me, and our deal. Yes, he still had them and he would part with them. I told him I would clear my schedule and zip out his way soon.

On a dark early November morning, I left Calgary and began my road trip to the other side of the Continental Divide. It was a beautiful day and the early fall snows had melted. The Crow’s Nest Pass was clear and dry. I roared through, westbound into British Columbia.

Just after lunchtime I was ringing Johnston’s doorbell in Cranbrook. A cheery retired Alberta farmer from the Olds/Bowden area greeted me. He had stacked the sought-after dozer collection inside the front door — all 23 in their original boxes, all brand new, all 1/16 scale models.

My dad would have delighted in the variety. Plus, he may have had a story about most of them. I believe Johnston’s collection would have brought Dad joy — his favourite machines, and the source of his favourite stories.

Johnston, then 84, had begun his collection shortly after retiring in the early 1990s.

“I’d always liked tractors, and particularly tracked ones,” he said. “I never owned an actual crawler though and I have never driven one,” he said.

He even gave me a bonus, his favourite farm tractor — the Oliver Super 88.

Johnston had gathered the toys at store sales, auction sales, and garage sales.

“It’s time to let them go,” he said.

Johnston said he also collected tobacco pipes, and showed me his display of about 300 pipes. His wife, Donna, has an extensive “wade whimsies” collection of glass figurines.

Three hours later and with a lighter wallet, I headed for home with a backseat full of boxes.

I raced the setting sun through the mountains, stopping only to let two moose cows amble off my back-roads shortcut west of Nanton. Up close, they look hideous, but “good eatin’,” brother Ron told me.

As for the toy dozer collection, I had several options, and even an offer.

Art Hanger, a retired federal politician now living in Calgary, was interested. He and his brother, Jim, who still farms extensively in Three Hills, Alta., have an idea for a Homestead Museum at the original family farm just south of that town. They will seek unique items to display.

Pulling into my home driveway, I still wasn’t sure what to do. But I did know that I had kept a promise — to myself, to Johnston, and even to my dad, an original dozer guy.

Robert Service would have smiled.

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