Retro Rural Toys: Handmade Barns Make Family Heirlooms

By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby  


Designing authentic toy barns that capture a child’s imagination requires John Kauffman to think like a kid when building each structure. Kauffman has earned a reputation by many as the best wooden toy barn builder in the U.S. 

In a high-tech world dominated by digital devices, is there any place for old-school toys like wooden barns? Absolutely, says John Kauffman of Eagle Grove, who has been handcrafting wooden barns, machine sheds and more for nearly 14 years. 

“Instead of just giving kids an iPad, why not give them a barn that sparks their creativity?” says Kauffman (a.k.a. “Big John”), who owns Kauffman’s Wood Kreations

Don’t underestimate the allure of this enticing alternative. Old-fashioned fun can feel surprisingly modern and welcome in this electronic age, says Kauffman, a self-described former kid who is now just a “bigger kid.” While he’s an agronomist by trade, Kauffman has carved a niche by building wooden toy barns and sheds in a variety of sizes, styles and colors. Most barns measure 24 inches by 28 inches and stand 22 to 28 inches tall. Kauffman can design toy barns to match actual barns that once stood on customers’ farms.  


Photo credit: Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

Designing a toy barn that captures a child’s imagination requires Kauffman to see the world through new eyes. “You’ve got to think like a kid,” he says. “Where will they want to reach in? What will they want to grab? Remember, kids are pretending this is a real barn with real doors and livestock.” 

Kauffman started making barns in the winter of 2008, when he decided that his nephew, Nick Lemmon, needed a barn to house his toy farm animal collection. “I went to the garage with a sheet of half-inch plywood and out came a gambrel roof (a two-sided roof with two slopes on each side) toy barn. You should have seen the look on Nick’s face when I gave it to him. I was hooked on making wooden barns from then on.”  

What started as a hobby grew into a thriving side business. When Kauffman had a booth at the Iowa State Fair in 2019, his barns and sheds attracted kids and their parents all day. Kids were captivated as they explored every door, gate and livestock pen in the barns. Conversations flowed naturally as children and adults interacted not only with the toys but also with each other.  

Photo credit: Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

Kauffman loved seeing the engagement. He also enjoys hearing from the kids who receive his handcrafted barns and machine sheds. Laura Friedrichsen, 10, of Holstein, was thrilled to win one of Kauffman’s barns in a recent coloring contest sponsored by Farm News, a farm newspaper based in Fort Dodge.  

“The kids had seen John and his barns at the Clay County Fair in Spencer and really liked them,” says Melissa Friedrichsen, Laura’s mother.  

The machine shed has been a big hit in the Friedrichsen home, not only with Laura but also with her older brother Jonathan and younger brother Caleb. “Our basement is a giant ‘farm,’ and the toy machine shed is part of it,” says Melissa, whose family raises crops and cattle. “It’s so nice of John to provide a lifelong memory for the kids.” 

Laura enjoyed her prize so much that she mailed Kauffman a handwritten thank you. “Dear Mr. Kauffman, thank you for the machine shed that I won in the coloring contest,” she wrote. “I’m trying to get my brothers to rent it for their farm toys. (It isn’t working!)”  

Attention to Detail Makes the Difference  

Building each barn and shed brings back many memories for Kauffman, who grew up on a farm south of Marcus in northwest Iowa. As a boy, he loved playing with a wooden toy barn built by his grandfather. It was a close replica of the actual barn on his father’s farm. 

As he grew older, Kaufmann gained plenty of firsthand experience working in real barns. “I baled a lot of hay in my day,” he recalls.  

Kauffman, who studied drafting in high school and worked for a cabinet shop in Nevada at one point in his career, relies on these skills as he crafts his toy barns. “Everyone thinks they can build a toy barn, but attention to detail is the key,” he says.   

His meticulous efforts are evident in each toy barn and farm building Kauffman crafts, from the curtains that go up and down in the hog confinement barn to the gates in the gambrel roof barn that swing open on real hinges. These aren’t fragile “dollhouses,” either. These are sturdy farm toys that can stand up to repeated use. “I want the barns to look as authentic as possible and be strong and durable,” Kauffman says. “Kids want to pretend everything is just like a real barn or farm building.”  

That means making a door in a toy machine shed or barn big enough that the child can drive a toy tractor or combine inside. When children play like this, they are doing more than entertaining themselves. They are also developing fine motor skills as they move wooden livestock pens, open barn doors, hook gates and more, Kauffman notes.  

When the barn looks like one that kids can relate to, it makes the whole experience even more fun. “We gave John photos and descriptions of a white barn that stood on our family’s farm until a fire destroyed the barn in the 1990s,” said Kim Gehling, who used to work for the National Pork Board in the Des Moines and now runs a computer business near Geneseo, Illinois. “The original barn was built by my kids’ great-great-grandfather, so the toy barn John created for us has a lot of meaning to our family.”  

As Gehling’s boys have grown up, the toy barn remains a big part of their childhood memories. “My two boys always loved playing farm,” she says. “John’s barns are so detailed and well-built, and the one he created for us was a perfect gift my kids enjoyed for years.” 

Along with barns, Kauffman has built cattle sheds, chicken houses, gas stations, a zoo and more. His creations range from 1/64 scale up to larger sizes. “I look at barns and farm buildings as I travel the countryside and get inspiration for what to make next,” added Kauffman, who usually works on multiple projects at once.  

As he continues to refine his skills, Kauffman checks in periodically with the experts. “I ask kids what they’d like to see that’s not part of the barns, so I can know what to do differently next time.”   

This commitment to excellence sets Kauffman apart from the competition, Gehling said. “John is extremely talented. I would venture to say he is the best wooden toy barn builder in the United States.” 

Serving Customers Across America  

It takes Kauffman a matter of weeks to craft each unique toy. The business continues to grow thanks to word-of-mouth advertising. Kauffman has also attended various farm shows across the country and events like the annual BreyerFest in Lexington, Kentucky, which brings the model horse world to life.  

Both boys and girls love playing with toy barns, says Kauffman, who is grateful for the first-time and repeat customers across North America who help him inspire the next generation’s interest in rural life. “I’ve shipped barns to customers in nearly every state,” he notes.  

There’s no better reward than seeing kids smile when they play with his toy barns, Kauffman says. “I make my barns to last. I hope they become family heirlooms.” 

Photo credit: Darcy Dougherty Maulsby