Farmer turns to art after retiring
By Scott Bellile
For most people, a roll of toilet paper becomes trash the moment they tear off the final strip.
But for 86-year-old Lawrence Conrath, when the TP runs out, the cardboard tube becomes the foundation of his art.
A lifelong farmer whose brain is jam-packed with agriculture memories, Conrath enjoys molding toilet paper rolls into mini cardboard tractors.
Upon first glance, one might not realize his projects are made of toilet paper rolls. They do not look like four wheels glued to a tube.
Conrath’s style, rather, is cutting up the roll and shaping it to his liking. He is so attentive to detail that he uses vice grips to bend the cardboard hood into 90-degree angles and a template to keep his tractor wheels as round as possible.
Besides toilet paper, Conrath’s choice supplies include popsicle sticks (for the base of the tractor), dowel rods (to form the axles and steering shaft), copper wire, paint, Sharpie markers and plenty of glue.
“It just overwhelms me what he could and still can [do] with all these toilet paper rolls,” said John Knudsen, a friend of Conrath’s for five decades who fetches his supplies.
Conrath has designed about 50 toilet paper tractors so far. He often puts smiles on people’s faces by giving them as gifts.
Terri Kersten, an optician at Wolf River Eye Care, learned of Conrath’s projects when he gave one to the office.
She commissioned a tractor for her father-in-law, who farmed near Caroline until he was 80 and was in the hospital this past winter. Her father-in-law was “just tickled” by the surprise, Kersten said.
“He was thrilled with the tractor, and everybody that comes in, he’s got to show them,” Kersten said.
Conrath moved to the Kindred Hearts assisted living facility in New London five years ago after a medical emergency.
Prior to relocating, he built both real and replica tractors and farm machinery in his sawmill outside his farm on Old Highway 45 in the town of Lebanon.
When he was growing up, he built himself a real, drivable tractor.
“This was my first car years ago,” Conrath said. “I didn’t have no driver’s license.”
Not even losing his right index finger to the blade killed his joy for working in a sawmill.
Once he moved into assisted living, Conrath was no longer permitted to work with hazardous tools. He got creative and switched to art supplies and toilet paper rolls.
“And the best thing about it is it keeps him busy, sharp,” Knudsen said. “I don’t know if I could even get a wheel made and I’d throw it in the garbage because I don’t have the patience.”
Conrath works on and off on his tractors so a typical project takes at least three days. He admits it can get frustrating. If he messes up, he said, he may quit and go do a puzzle or start over at the beginning.
“It keeps you going,” Conrath said of his hobby. Without it he said he would be “ugly and crabby,” which, he joked, would make him less popular with the ladies.