Artistic Artifacts

Jim McGhee's collection of artistic artifacts is all about utility and visual appeal.

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Jim and his mascot: “Wrench Man.” Wallace Keller, Mt. Horeb, Wis., one of Jim’s friends, created Wrench Man from wrenches, a little sheet metal and steel wool.

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"There is beauty all around, if only we can see it," explains farmer, artist and tool collector Jim McGhee, Hollandale, Wis., as he looks at the fields surrounding his farm. "I am drawn to beautiful, utilitarian things just as I am drawn to this beautiful landscape." Jim is quick to point out that there is unsurpassed natural beauty in the world around him, but it is human creativity that compels him as a collector. "Look at the intricate details cast into this foot platform," Jim says. "Imagine the skill and accuracy of the people who carved the pattern for things like this."

Utility and visual appeal are the hallmarks of Jim's collection. He is particularly enthusiastic about cast pieces, at once artful and functional. "My collection is really a celebration of the creativity of the people who made these pieces," Jim says. "They must've cared about bringing a little visual joy to the person who used them every day."

As a student of the visual arts, Jim was just days away from completing his undergraduate degree when he was called home to help run the family dairy farm. Although he never looked back, while running the farm Jim still found time to hone his woodworking skills and was once contracted to build a large pipe organ - a project combining his love of art and music. Now retired from farming, he's found a way to combine the artist and the collector within by creating cast iron collages that engage the eye and the mind.

Iron art

Jim initially collected cast iron seats and tools because they were interesting to look at, relatively inexpensive and easy to find. He was especially interested in ornate objects with the company name worked into the piece. Likewise, he's collected hand tools where the principal structural web (and/or chord) has the maker's name or the brand cast through them, although many more simply have the identifying information cast as raised letters and numbers. In either form, the identity information proves useful for learning more.

As his cast iron collection grew, Jim wanted to learn more about individual items, so he searched for old catalogs, parts books and buyer's guides. "I use the buyer's guides to cross-reference part numbers," he says. That way, he can learn exactly what an old piece of cast iron was used for. Jim has a couple of intricate cast pieces he identified this way: a foot platform from a Plano Mfg. Co. Jones steel header, and a footrest from a Parlin & Orendorff stalk cutter. "I might buy an interesting piece because it appeals to me visually," Jim says. "Then I can have fun trying to figure out what it is and what it was used for."

As Jim studied his cast iron pieces, immersing himself in the history of the manufacturers, he was struck by the breadth and depth of relatively specific types of castings from an individual manufacturer. Understanding the pieces collectively helped him see the larger corporate picture. "I noticed I had groups of items made by one manufacturer at different times, or representing different brands of an individual company, and I thought about how they related to the history of that company," Jim says. "Integrating all of the little pieces helps me to understand the big picture." Understanding the integration, and wanting to display some of his items at shows, Jim looked at his collection in a new way.

He sought to create exhibits that were easy to haul, easy to set up and compact to store. He also wanted to showcase groups of related items, and he wanted the whole thing to be visually engaging at a farm show. "I had seen a few tool displays that were interesting but really overwhelming," Jim explains. "His goal was to create displays making use of shapes and deliberate layout to lead the eye from one item to the next while symbolically relating some part of a company's history.

Jim settled on a "canvas" of framed pegboard panels to create his iron art. The panels are easy to haul and store, and with the wrenches, seats and other parts wired in place, little effort is required to set up or dismantle the display. The real work came in the design. "I put the empty panels on the ground and placed things and moved them around until it looked organic," Jim says. "When they had the same eye appeal as the agricultural landscape around me, I called them done."

To date, Jim has created several panels relating to International Harvester, and he has materials for many more. On one panel, he focused on a few of the companies that went into International Harvester in the early years of the last century. At the display's center is his cherished Plano Mfg. Jones Rake Seat (likely pre-IH) from which contours of wrenches appear to emerge in spiral fashion. The wrenches include several specific to Buffalo Pitts threshing machines, Parlin & Orendorff and Chattanooga Plow Co. plows, Champion Machine Co. rakes, Keystone Mfg. Co. corn shellers and IH cream separators. Together, these items offer a bit of insight into International's brands and breadth of offerings shortly after the company's formation.

In other panels, Jim celebrates the history of the Case Threshing Machine Co., Case Plow Co. and Fuller & Johnson, a Madison, Wis., builder of engines, tobacco transplanters, cultivators, plows and more. Jim's collection includes cultivator seats, plow wrenches, planter box covers, transplanter water tank lids, gas engine ignition wrenches and some items from the related Madison Plow Co. "I got into the Case stuff because of the steam engine wrenches," Jim adds.

Only a relatively small proportion of Jim's cast iron collectibles have made it onto a display panel. Sometimes he doesn't have enough related pieces to make a cohesive display, and many pieces simply can't be easily attached to pegboard. Among Jim's prized pieces: a cast iron oil funnel once supplied by International Harvester to help lubricate Titan tractors and a pair of locally made sickle bar anvils. "The funnel is interesting because it is big, heavy and unusual," Jim says. "Who thinks of cast iron and funnel at the same time?" The two sickle bar anvils are marked with the maker (Rein Leitzke) and are virtually identical in every way except location of manufacture - one is marked Hustisford, Wis., while the other says Beaver Dam, Wis. Jim notes that part of the story those tools tell is how the manufacturer moved around over the years.

Beautiful bounty

As he researched tools and implement parts, Jim encountered sales literature, postcards and lithographs. Though the imagery is undeniably beautiful, Jim particularly appreciates the complexities of the color lithograph process and the skill of those who bothered to make the old printed material beautiful.

As a former dairy farmer, Jim has a natural interest in old milking equipment. Jim's dairy collection includes vacuum pumps, a complete set (all sizes) of stainless steel IH milker pails, new-old-stock inflations, pulsators, airlines, gaskets and more. He even has several IH hit-and-miss gasoline engines, any one of which could power the vacuum pump. A number of cream separators find Jim's place to be a good home, including his pride and joy, an original condition and complete IH Lily cream separator. The Lily was not Harvester's first separator to hit the market, but its lovely styling and small size made it very popular in the farmhouse. Today, an intact Lily is a rare find indeed, and Jim plans a careful restoration for his.

Jim's tractor collection includes a 1927 McCormick-Deering 10-20, a 1929 International Harvester Farmall Regular, a Farmall M and several other more recent models he farmed with. Quite possibly the most unusual piece of machinery in Jim's collection is his beautifully original 1959 Model 91 self-propelled combine. Although not that old by many measures, 45 years is ancient for a fully functional combine. The Model 91 is especially unusual because it was the only IH combine not built at the company's East Moline, Ill., plant, and the only one that was lever steered. Rather than employing conventional rear-wheel steering, the Model 91 was equipped with levers independently controlling power to the left and right drive wheels much like today's skid loader, and the rear wheels are essentially large casters.

Work in progress

Jim doesn't know where his artistic collecting will lead him next. Once an active exhibitor, he's cut his hectic show circuit to a few events close to home. That leaves him with more time to find the inner beauty in rust-, grease- or dirt-encapsulated objects, clean them up, learn what can be learned about them, and celebrate the hands and minds that worked so hard to create them.

"The day I come out here (into the shop) and it isn't a totally renewing experience is the day I am done," Jim says over the crescendo of a lovely Bach concerto emanating from speakers located around the shop. "If I try to force it in one direction or another, it quickly loses its appeal."

For more information:

- Jim McGhee, 8291 Highway 39, Hollandale, WI 53544; (608) 967-2147.

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector, freelance writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu