Tool Treasure Trove: 17th Annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale

Collectors swarm over vintage tools at one of the few tool collectors’ shows open to the public
Lyle R. Rolfe
January 2010
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Tools tagged at $5 a piece at the 17th Annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale snagged close scrutiny.
Lyle R. Rolfe
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The vendors were almost as plentiful as the buyers at the 17th annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale last August at the restored 1840s Garfield Farm and Inn Museum near Wasco in northern Illinois.

Sponsored by the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. and the Early American Industries Assn., the event differs from most tool collector shows – it’s open to the public.

Dealers like the event: It gives them exposure to a different group of buyers and introduces new people to the hobby. And dealer/collectors still get a chance to do a bit of looking themselves. “Many of us spend more on things for our collections than we make on our sales,” says Bill Cox, Streator, Ill. “I bought a big work bench and some other things, so I didn’t make anything today. But I had a lot of fun visiting with friends.” His wife, De­nice, who collects rare buttonhole chisels, watches the table while he roams.

Collectors looking for value

At Ron Jensen’s table, there was a sander patented in 1885. “It’s unusual because of the gear system and the engineering involved in making it,” he says. He had hardly finished explaining how the device worked when a bystander traded him a handful of bills for the tool and walked off with it.

Ron, who grew up on a Wisconsin farm and now lives in Edgerton, Wis., began collecting tools 50 years ago at age 15, after attending an estate auction where he bought a large buffet and two buckets of tools. The starting bid on the buffet was $1,000, but rain put a damper on the auction. At day’s end, the auctioneer took Ron’s $25 bid for the buffet and a couple bucks for the wrenches.

Five decades later, Ron has amassed a collection his insurance agent estimates at 17 tons. “I ain’t going to count ’em,” he recalls the agent saying.

For 20 years, Ron has frequented garage sales in old, established neighborhoods, auctions, farm estate sales and flea markets within 150 miles of his home. He has a keen eye for bargains. “Many people don’t know what they’ve got or its real value,” he says. “It takes time to learn these things.”

And value is key. “Collectors today are looking more for investment grade tools,” Ron adds. “By investment, I’m talking about quality tools that are good investments.” He pointed to a $110 woodworking plane on a neighboring vendor’s table, noting, “They still make planes, but not like that.”

A couple of buyers correctly identified his wheat flail, commonly used in northern Wisconsin from the 1830s to the 1860s. Intact original leather hinges make the piece rare, Ron says. It dates to an era when harvest was back-breaking toil.

“You’d throw wheat on the barn floor and beat it with this tool to separate it from the chaff,” he explains. “I’m selling it for $25 because I got it for a good price from a granary in northern Wisconsin, but I’ve seen them go for $75.”

Occupational hazard

Bill Cox pointed at a cutter for workhorse harness straps as the most unusual tool on his table. “A strap with square edges would rub sores on the horse until the edges were worn down,” he says. “This tool rounds the edges on the straps.” The piece was tagged at $400.

He once sold a similar piece for $475 to a buyer in Italy via an online auction. It was newer, and the manufacturer’s name (R.E. Schwartz Leather Apparatus, Champaign, Ill.) was cast into it.

A vocational arts instructor for 35 years, Bill became interested in tools as a teenager while working for a contractor. He began by collecting planes and surveying equipment, then became interested in harness-making tools. Now he includes all types of levels in his collection. He and Denice have filled a large barn and lean-to past overflowing, and he’s still on the hunt.

“Older, good tools are getting harder to find,” he says. “I remember when I could attend the Kane County (Ill.) flea market in St. Charles, buy a bunch of tools on Saturday, sell them in my booth on Sunday and make $2,000. I once bought a Bedrock 602 plane for $15 from one vendor and sold it the next day for a $495 profit.”

Easy in, easy out

Jim Hiatt, Villa Park, Ill., says he recently listed his collection for sale to keep relatives from throwing it into a dumpster when he is gone. But old habits die hard: At Wasco, Jim was perusing all the tables, looking for new things to buy.

“In the early 1950s, as a kid, I went to a flea market in Joliet, Ill., with a friend and saw a motorcycle chain breaker,” he recalls. “I bought it, walked across the aisle and sold it for double the amount. It was so easy I just began buying and selling.”

Monmouth, Ill., collector and dealer Cleo Dye says a move from the farm to town forced him to downsize his collection of plow planes. His collection started with an old plane he picked up at the Kane County flea market. “I cleaned it up and found the name ‘J. Dye’ on it in three places,” he recalls. “I tracked it down to one of two relatives in Ohio and that got me started collecting.”

A preference for antiques

Chris Berger, Purdue, Ind., also collects planes. When he attends shows, he takes duplicates from his collection to sell, and also looks for new pieces. At the Wasco event, he showed an ivory-tipped rosewood plow plane made in 1850 by the Casey Co., which used prison labor out of Auburn, N.Y. A plow plane, he says, was used to cut a groove for the bottom of a drawer. It goes along the grain of the wood and plows out the groove.

“It doesn’t need to be this fancy,” he says. “There’s no reason for the ivory tips, because they don’t affect the job it does. But a lot of craftsmen in their advertising would say, ‘See my fine tools? I do fine work.’”

Chris started his collection with five planes from his grandfather, a woodworker and farmer. “He got me interested in woodworking,” he says, “which led to collecting tools. A lot of us woodworkers either don’t use power tools or use them just for heavy work. With a little practice, you can get as good a joint or better, and sometimes it’s faster by hand.”

The rosewood plane has been retired from active duty, Chris says. “It is a desirable collectible and historical piece,” he says. He’d tagged it at $800, which he felt was a reasonable price. “I got it in poor condition, turned the ivory tips myself and restored it,” he notes.

He enjoys attending shows, particularly those like this one, where the public is invited. “I keep saying we need newer, younger members,” he says. “Old tools don’t die, but old tool collectors do. A lot of pieces are now coming from established collections of 40, 50 years or more. These artifacts will outlive us.” FC

 


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