An article in last month's Farm Collector focused on vintage barns. But the items once housed in those barns are just as much interest to serious collectors of farm antiques.
Interest in barn items sometimes focuses on pieces such as door and stall latches and other fixtures, ranging from the simple to the complex. Barn boards and doors are often recycled in "new" farm buildings and homes, as well as in larger displays of collectibles. Vintage roof-top cupolas sometimes resurface on contemporary structures.
But most often, hay equipment is the category that captivates the collector's attention. Collectibles range from the heavy items, like carriers, suspensions, rails and forks, to smaller pieces, like barn pulleys.
Unless you're a veteran collector, now may be a great time to start accumulating pieces like forks and pulleys. A great variety is still available for reasonable prices at auctions and flea markets, says Missouri farm antiques trader John E. Currie.
"But the old hay slings, which closed around hay to lift it, are about all gone," he says. "All I've seen recently is wooden 2x2s used in the slings."
Except for times when two collectors collide over sale items, John says, prices for most pulleys and forks have stabilized or dropped slightly from a few years ago when there was a surge of popularity.
"In the Midwest, a large rectangular fork might bring $9 to $14 at a flea market," he says, "while many pulleys, even the fancier ones, might average $7 to $12."
Barry Merenoff, New Haven, Mich., specializes in pulleys. He remains amazed at the number of designs, still adding to his collection of 345 different barn pulleys. (His total collection includes more than 900 pieces: block-and-tackle, marine, fence stretchers, light industrial and heavy industrial.)
"Wood sheaves (the round, revolving part), usually hard maple, were more common than iron sheaves," Barry says. "Original cast iron was very brittle, and not feasible for sheaves. Malleable iron or steel were stronger, but came later – probably the latter half of the period from 1850 to 1950." The pulleys required occasional maintenance.
"I have several examples of the same or similar design, used with a wood sheave, or with a metal sheave," he adds. "The pin, usually hollow, with a flange unit at one end and a cotter pin anchor at the other, was removable to replace worn sheaves. Wood sheaves were a fairly standard hardware store item in farm areas.
The hay carriers used carrier pulleys with metal sheaves and wear levels imposed," he says. "The only wood sheaves I have seen, other than on the 'standard' barn pulleys, are on some hay sling pulleys. Sling items are much less common."
Barry sometimes visits old barns (with the owner's permission) in his search for new additions to his collection. But such visits can be risky if floors and/or beams are weak. Antique shows and shop visits usually yield "spotty" results, he says.
"But there are some good areas for shops, such as the Adamstown, Pa., area," he says. "Letting dealer specialists know your interests often pays off in obtaining rarer equipment designs. I've seen items on eBay (the online auction), but prices are usually relatively high."
Barry's barn items are on display in a large garage, the walls clad in 4x8 sheets of wood. Some pieces are hung on the walls; others from the rafters on hooks, grouped by type and manufacturer. Pulley types are grouped by size, or by single-, double- or triple-sheave types. Special lighting at the rafters aids viewing, and each piece is identified by a tag recording collection, "family" and type numbers. Barry does not believe in extensive restoration work.
"Try to appreciate the combination of function, design and fine materials that are in pulleys," he says. "I do not refinish my pieces. They can be cleaned of dirt and surface rust, but artificial finishing often conceals natural wear, and may hide valuable 'marks'. Look for manufacturer's marks, as names are often cast in, inscribed or appear on a nameplate. These add value to the piece."
Other tips to new collectors:
"Look for different sizes within the same basic design, which adds interest to the collection, and can give an idea of the range of the manufacturer's line," Barry says. "Also, look for manufacturer's catalogs or hardware catalogs, as these have valuable data on styles and sizes used."
Robert Rauhauser, Thomasville, Pa., sometimes trades with Barry and others across the country. His collection includes hundreds of pieces of barn and haying equipment.
"I'm still adding to my collections, mainly by trading," he explains. "I just added a haymow fork from a collector who leans more toward kitchen collectibles. I traded a rare egg beater and got boot money besides. There are still haymow forks in other collections that I know about that I'd like to add to my own, even though I have over 100 different forks."
Robert recommends researching old patents and manufacturer's catalogs to learn more about barn equipment.
"I photocopy from a 1929 Louden's catalog in York, Pa.," he says. "The Louden Machinery Co. of Fairfield, Iowa, was probably the biggest manufacturer of barn equipment. They even sold plans for barns."
Some haymow forks have barbed points to enter and hold loose hay, and some have smaller shank hooks which revolve into the hay to hold it when rope tension increases. Others look like giant ice tongs, and swivel under tension to hook into hay. Some of the latter are likely blacksmith-made and bear no maker's mark, but whoever made them deserves an award for function and design.
"I don't believe you would have many farmers today if they had to put hay away by hand, like they did in the olden days," Robert observes. "It was nothing but hard, dirty work with a lot of hardships and tragedies." FC
For more information:
-John E. Currie, RR 1, Tarkio, MO 64491.
-Barry Merenoff, PO Box 480338, New Haven, MI 48048.
-Robert Rauhauser, Box 766 R2, Thomasville, PA 17364.
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.