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A Thank-You Gift for Coach Fry

Les Grundmeyer, a Buchanan County Farm Bureau member from Aurora, builds model barns in his on-farm workshop after he finishes harvest each fall. Last winter, he created a 'mule barn' for former Iowa Hawkeye football coach Hayden Fry.Les Grundmeyer remembers how much it meant to Iowa farmers like himself when Hawkeye football coach Hayden Fry placed the “ANF,” or America Needs Farmers, sticker on player’s helmets during the 1980s farm crisis.

So when Grundmeyer was offered a chance to repay Coach Fry for recognizing farmers in their time of need, he immediately said yes.

“I wanted to do it because I thought ANF was a great idea in 1985 and I still do. It promotes agriculture,” said Grundmeyer, a University of Iowa graduate and Buchanan County Farm Bureau member.

Grundmeyer, a farmer and woodworker from Aurora, started building toy barns as a hobby after he retired from raising hogs about five years ago. Last fall, he crafted a miniature 1950s farmstead, complete with 14 different farm buildings, and decided to show it at the National Farm Toy Show in Dyersville.

On the second day of the show, visitor Joe Tonkinson stopped to admire Grundmeyer’s handiwork. He asked Grundmeyer if he could build another toy barn as a gift for a good friend of his — Coach Fry.

Tonkinson, a Missouri-based arch­itect, became friends with Fry while working on the renovation of Kinnick Stadium, home of Hawkeye football, in Iowa City.

Specifically, Tonkinson wanted a miniature mule barn because Fry, who grew up in Texas and now lives in Nevada, calls his home “the mule barn.”

“I said, yeah, I would make a mule barn for him. And then I said, ‘What’s a mule barn?’” Grundmeyer recalls with a laugh.

Grundmeyer searched the Internet and checked encyclopedias to find photos of mule barns. “As near as I can tell, a mule barn is just about anything you want to call a barn that a mule could walk into,” he explains.

After settling on a design, Grund­meyer started working on the miniature mule barn after he finished harvest last October.

He built the barn to 1/16th scale, the same scale as the little toy mules he used as a guide. The barn, which measures about 21-inches-by-24-inches in length and width and 17 inches in height, is made out of unpainted pine wood. “It looks a little more rustic that way,” Grundmeyer says.

Grundmeyer designed the barn with a farmer’s eye for detail. The barn includes three sections, with a peak on the center section and removable roofs on the two sides. The center section has an alley that’s wide enough for a toy tractor, with hinged doors and ladders climbing up to a hay mound.

Grundmeyer used Masonite board on the barn floor, so it looks like reddish dirt from Texas. “Joe and I got the idea, we’re going to get some dirt from Odessa, Texas, and put it in there, since that’s where (Fry) grew up,” Grundmeyer says. “But we didn’t have the time to run down to Odessa, so that didn’t happen.”

Grundmeyer spent a little over two months building the mule barn, working about 20 to 30 hours a week inside an old corn crib he turned into his woodshop.

“I worked a little bit and then let it sit and dry. Let the glue take hold, and then I could do a little bit more,” Grundmeyer said. “So it took a while. But it turned out as good as I hoped. Everything fit together as I was going along.”

Once the barn was complete, Tonkinson asked Grundmeyer to write Coach Fry a personal letter explaining how he designed and built the one-of-a-kind gift.

Grundmeyer ended up writing a letter that’s as well-crafted as the toy barn he built. In the letter to Fry, he writes:

“In 1985, I was a young farmer. Married in 1979, Chris and I had two boys … We were just getting rolling. Then came the ‘80s farm crisis. Margins were thin, if not non-existent; interest rates climbed. Not a fun time.

“Suddenly, ANF appeared on Iowa helmets. Those three letters let us know you understood what was happening in rural America and gave us some inspiration to persevere until the good times returned...It gave us support, encouragement and resolve to keep going. On behalf of farmers and ranchers across America, we thank you.”

Grundmeyer notes that the ANF logo remains on Hawkeye football helmets today, 30 years after Fry introduced it.

This fall, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and the University of Iowa Athletics Department will once again team up for the America Needs Farmers effort, which raises awareness of farmers’ continuous efforts to provide food and fuel to people in the United States and around the world.

Grundmeyer placed an ANF decal under the roof of the miniature mule barn, along with “Fry’s Mule Barn” stenciled on the side.

It turned out, Tonkinson couldn’t find time to personally deliver the mule barn to Fry, so he sent it by courier to Fry in July.

Four days later, Grundmeyer got a surprise phone call from the legendary Hawkeye football coach himself. Fry thanked Grundmeyer for making the “cutest dang little barn.”

“Oh man, you could have blown me over. I was thrilled,” Grundmeyer says. “We talked about kids, family and Iowa, and not so much about football. He’s a nice, easy-going guy to talk to.”

Fry told Grundmeyer that the mule barn is now on display in his trophy room, where Fry and his family and friends gather to watch football on the room’s three TV screens.

“For me, it’s a thank-you for ANF,” Grundmeyer says about building the barn for Fry. “I’m 63 years old now, and I went through (the farm crisis), so I know what it’s all about. I was glad to do it because of that.”