AMERICAN FALLS — From old siding, tin scraps and wooden blocks, Leroy Zimmerman assembles miniature versions of the farm equipment he and his father used to use.
The toy-sized potato harvesters, antique tractors, plows and combines built to scale in his shop are so incredibly detailed, they appear to have been created by somehow shrinking real machinery.
Zimmerman, who turns 89 in September, made all of his own toys as a child: He predominately built hand-made tractors and trucks.
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"I can remember tracing an old tin can to make a wheel and putting little finishing nails in the wood wheel to make a steel wheel out of it," Zimmerman said.
Now in the twilight of his life, the former American Falls farmer has rekindled the hobby of his youth, further perfecting his craft with every vintage Farmall A tractor or disc plow he finishes. Throughout the past decade, Zimmerman has made a couple hundred miniature machines and implements, many of which are displayed on shelves in his garage, along with some models that he purchased.
He also donated 17 replicas of potato harvesting equipment to the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot. The museum's director, Tish Dahmen, has a few of the pieces on display in her gift shop and plans to soon show off the full collection in a glass case.
"I think what makes his creations so valuable is the attention to detail, but also his association with each piece is amazing," Dahmen said. "He's like a savant of tractors. He knows what year, what type, what went into it and how many they made."
Zimmerman's miniatures are also featured in a video about tractors shown at the museum's theater. He's made models based on actual equipment used by his father, John. He recreated a tractor from memory that a neighboring farmer once used. He's even made little replicas of potato harvesting equipment he built himself, back when he farmed with his brothers, Glen and David.
The three brothers followed in their father's footsteps and collaborated on a wheat, potato and sugar beet farm in Pleasant Valley, located between American Falls and Aberdeen. As small-acreage farmers, they didn't have a large budget for equipment, so Zimmerman often devised his own designs —usually with innovations well ahead of their time — and built equipment from scratch.
In 1954, he built a potato harvester with an "open throat," which enabled the spuds to move up the conveyor without the vines and dirt clogging up the process.
Five years later, he converted the harvester to have a "wrap-around and a vine chain," which rolled spuds onto additional conveyors en route to the bed of the truck, separating vines and clods in the process.
"When I was younger, I remember them hauling in sheet metal and angle iron from Partner Steel and cutting and building those windrowers and side diggers," his son, Steve, recalled.
Steve also remembers countless modifications his dad made to make farm equipment work better.
While he was still farming, Zimmerman also began restoring antique tractors and old equipment — some of it purchased at scrap prices and some of it given to him from a friend's fence row. Throughout the years, he's restored about a dozen machines.
Zimmerman's life on the farm came to an end in the mid-1980s, when he and his brothers bought some foundation potato seed to plant that was tainted with a devastating pathogen of spuds, bacterial ring rot. The disease destroyed 500 acres of spuds and put the brothers out of business.
"I was wanting to get out of farming anyway," Zimmerman said. "Even then, you had to get bigger, and bigger and bigger, and then you had to hire help that didn't understand what you were doing."
After losing the farm, he moved to Meridian, where he took a job working as a general handyman with WinCo Foods. One day, his manager challenged him to design and install the store's first spring-loaded gates to hold carts within their racks. The boss was so pleased by the results, he tasked Zimmerman with installing his innovation at WinCo stores throughout the Northwest.
Zimmerman retired from WinCo at age 77 and returned to Pocatello.
About a decade ago, when he was physically unable work on real equipment, he started making his models.
Surfaces throughout his shop are covered with wooden axles, painted tractor wheels and wooden blocks roughly cut in the shapes of tractor bodies. His wife, Barbara, finds photographs of antique tractors online and prints them for him to replicate.
As was the case on the farm, he's saved money on his model-making by building some of the equipment in his shop. For example, he made his mill from an old drill press. He continues to devise new techniques for making his creations appear as a realistic as possible.
"When he's feeling really well, I'm guessing he's out there 30 hours a week, maybe more," Steve estimated. "That's what he does."
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