Ron Moore certainly doesn't look like a hog farmer. His ponytail and bushy beard might allow him to blend in better at a Harley-Davidson rally than at a farm auction. His vanity plate on his Dodge pickup, though, reveals why he'd rather attend the latter instead of the former: HOGOILR.
With the help of some knowledgeable and friendly fellow collectors, Moore has built one of the largest collections of hog oilers in Indiana. The humble collector was never a farmer, never owned any livestock, yet his passion for collecting the swine skin soothers burns strong. "I've never owned a hog, and I never will," says Moore of Bloomingdale, Ind. The draw for him is the joy of gathering and the thrill of a great find.
He bought one of his first hog oilers while rummaging through a flea market seven years ago. Moore paid $165 for a Health Hog Oiler, originally manufactured in Kenton, Ohio – a price he thought was outrageous at the time. While talking with his newfound friends in the hog oiler community, he learned the oiler was one of a kind. "I sent a picture to them and talked to them on the phone," Moore says. "Now I wouldn't sell it for less than $1,500."
He credits his network of fellow collectors for helping his collection grow to more than 80 pieces, ranging in worth from $30 to $2,000. "All I have learned has come from other collectors," Moore admits. "And I wouldn't have a third of my oilers if it wasn't for others selling me their duplicates. Everyone has a duplicate to sell. And there's always a fool like me with a pocketful of money to buy it."
Richard Bostic of Logansport, Ind., is one such collector in Moore's network. He did more than just sell Moore his duplicates. Bostic spurred Moore's collection by parting with most of his hog oilers. In fact, Bostic can be sourced for nearly one-fourth of Moore's collection.
Once Moore was hooked, it didn't take long for word to spread that he was a collector willing to pay a fair price for quality hog oilers. His other collections and hobbies offer some insight into his enthusiasm. Once he decided to make his own arrowheads, he chipped through a garbage can full of flint. His license plate collection is so large that it is displayed like aluminum siding on his barn wall. And his frog doorstops have long exceeded (many times over) the number of doors in his home.
While Moore has lost interest in those collectibles, his interest in oilers has yet to wane. According to him, their appeal seems to be equal parts historical preservation, their capability of being colorfully displayed, and their simplicity in which they can be operated and refurbished. "I can't tear down an engine and restore it," Moore says with a laugh. "But oilers are childishly simple. They're hog-operated."
According to Robert Rauhauser's booklet, Goodbye Mr. Louse, there were more than 157 patents for such hog-operated oilers. Many manufacturers, though, didn't bother with the patent process. "There are probably more hog oilers manufactured that were never patented than were patented," Rauhauser wrote. Other collectors estimate that some 600 different brands of swine skin soothers were invented from the early 1900s to the early 1960s.
Based on the booklet's collection of vintage ads, oilers ranged in price from $4.50 to $12. Some manufacturers even promised a 30-day, money-back guarantee. "But what respectable company would buy back an oiler that's been in the hog lot for a month?" Moore jokes.
At the height of the hog oiler years, farmers had their choice of brands from Watermelon to Hog Joy, and from Swine-Ezer to "Rub Hog or Die." The shapes were limited to only the inventor's imagination. Some looked like watermelons or footballs. Others were upright in design and spilled, instead of rolled, oil onto the scratching swine. Others were still more complex.
The most complicated machine in Moore's collection is the Health oiler. The upright hog oiler's reservoir is operated with a cam, a shoe and two deflectors. When hogs rub against the bar, the internal machinations allow oil to trickle down from the reservoir. Oil missing the hog is saved in a catch basin.
Another complex oiler, and certainly the largest, is the Swine-Ezer, made by Lisle Manufacturing Co. of Clarindo, Iowa. It stood as tall as a washing machine and had three rotating balls with a hefty 10-gallon reservoir. The company's ads boasted that the Swine-Ezer could easily accommodate three full-grown hogs.
Moore would like to boast that he has one in his possession, but can't. He estimates there are only seven of these oversized oilers still around. "These are the Cadillac of hog oilers," says Moore. "I'd love to have one."
He spotted one once at a gas engine show. "I offered the ridiculous amount of $3,000," he recalls with a laugh. "The guy countered with $5,000." That was too rich, even for Moore.
Moore has "more affordable" oilers by Watermelon, Hogs Delight, Schultz, Dexter, Faultless, Columbian, Lennox, Rub Hog or Die, Ball and many rare ones that he's yet to identify. He believes his collection of Ball Oilers (manufactured in Washington, Iowa) is one of the largest.
His interest in Balls began with the idea of buying enough of them to make a set of pool balls. Once he discovered it was possible, he began cornering the Ball market. Two years later, he "noticed" he had accomplished his goal. "I originally wanted to buy 16, but I didn't really keep track," says Moore. (The last time he checked, he had 42.)
He displays his brightly painted Balls, appropriately enough, in his poolroom. Accompanying them are other mint pieces that have been painted by his wife, Pat. There's a pair of Columbians, one sporting watermelon colors and the other painted like a pig. An unidentified oiler resembles a wheel of Swiss cheese. Keeping with that motif, Pat painted its wheel "Swiss-colored" and its handle the color of cheddar. (She even added a smiling mouse.)
Deciding to resell or display the oilers usually answers the question of whether to paint or not to paint. Since Moore is collecting for display purposes – for the time being – he opts for color over original condition. "I'd much rather look at a display of colorfully painted oilers than a pile of rusted metal," he says.
He realizes, though, that paint can be perceived as something that's hiding imperfections or "donor" parts (those added in a restorative effort) that can detract from an oiler's value. Some collectors interested in investing and resale may cringe at his painted pieces. A trained eye, though, can usually spot defects and restorations even through a layer of paint. Typically, such seasoned collectors are tipped to donor parts or patches by differing textures in the metal or welds that don't quite match.
Sometimes, though, the pristine condition of an eye catching piece changes Moore's stance on the paint debate. One such oiler, for example, is a piece Moore simply calls "1915." This upright model, identified by its date of manufacture, has aged gracefully like an old penny. Its patina exudes an aura of stateliness rather than disrepair, and Moore respects that. "If I were to sandblast and paint this one," Moore says, "that's 85 years of patina lost."
Moore loves to view collections of oilers at farm implement and gas engine shows such as those at the Tri-State Tractor and Gas Engine Show in Portland, Ind., and the Central Hawkeye Annual Show in Waukee, Iowa. He gathers with fellow collectors and exchanges trade secrets and telephone numbers. But he rarely purchases oilers there. By maintaining his reputation as a buyer and nurturing his contact list, his purchases are made before the shows or before an oiler goes "on the market."
One collector from Kansas called Moore before arriving at the Portland show and allowed him to preview his oilers. "He called me first, and I bought six from him," Moore says. "What I didn't buy from him, he took to the show to sell." Purchasing quantities of – as well as quality – is one secret to his collection's growth.
Moore, like many collectors, says the thrill of the find fuels the hobby's fire. A farmer in Ohio called Moore and informed him that he had "a few" Wilson upright oilers. Moore asked, "How many is a few?" The answer: 16.
Further inquiry revealed the farmer's son had purchased an old farm supply store. To Moore's astonishment, these oilers were still in the boxes. How many did he buy? "All of them," Moore says with a laugh. "Once word gets out that you're paying top dollar for oilers, people will seek you out."
While human contact is the primary source for Moore's oilers, technology helps out as well. He begrudgingly accepts the fact that computers are here to stay, so he finally bought one to help with inventory and bookkeeping. "I hate the thing," Moore says, "but it seems if you don't learn to use computers they'll drag you kicking and screaming along with them anyway."
His attitudes toward technological advances and the internet have warmed slightly since he has discovered eBay, though. The online auction site has become another avenue through which he builds his collection. (He made his first purchase, a rare Hogs Delight, in August.) Does he now embrace his computer? "I still hate it," he answers, "but I now go online once or twice a week."
Moore hopes to build a traveling display and occupy a booth at engine shows, county fairs, and maybe pork producer conventions. He's even expressed interest in donating his collection to a museum, if one was willing to display his wares. The investor in him, though, wants to dangle his oilers in the water, so to speak, and see what the market will yield in five to 10 years. "Playing with them is sure more fun than keeping track of a checkbook," Moore says. "I've only sold one so far. I may just have to see what these are worth some day."
Moore confesses that he's yet to meet a hog oiler he doesn't like. So he'll continue to root around for more, even though he ran out of places to display them long ago. And when he can't find an oiler, don't worry, he'll just add to his collection of "go-withs": miniature hog oilers, sloppers, hog ringers, forceps, catchers, snouters, nose notchers ...
What slick hog oiler buyers need to know
Most sellers will hem and haw when it comes to listing a sale price for their collectibles. The standard rebuttal to "How much do you want?" is "How much do you want to offer?"
Through a network of fellow collectors, Ron Moore has developed a strong sense of hog oilers' history, how to restore them, and what they're worth. But like most collectors, he's reluctant to say how much he's paid for individual oilers. He was, however, willing to offer some ballpark prices and tips with one caveat: It's often impossible to say exactly what the rarest of the oilers are worth. Many times, as he and other collectors have learned, that value is based solely on what someone is willing to pay.
$30 – Common oilers (steel, two wheelers); $100-150 – Columbian, Wilson; $300 – Ball, Lennox, Watermelon; $400 – Soo; $600 – Schultz upright, All-Over; $700-$800 – Bullet- or rocket-shaped oilers; $3,000 or more – Swine-Ezer.
Estimates are for oilers in mint condition which, according to Moore, means oilers with original parts, no cracks, no donor parts, and distinct, clear lettering (an indication of little wear). Repaired patches and filled cracks can be spotted by differences in the metal's pores. Metals cast at different times rarely match. Discrepancies in the welds are also telltale signs of restoration.
Savvy collectors, however, are wise to befriend someone who works at a foundry as well as an accomplished welder. Oiler lids lost in hog lots years ago can be recast at foundries-at a relatively low cost if you have an inside contact. And an artisan welder can reattach legs that have snapped off oftentimes in the style of the original welds. Quality repairs will not only enhance the look of your pieces, but also increase their value. FC
Layne Cameron is an Indianapolis-based writer whose books include Mountain Bike Indiana and Kidding Around Indianapolis. He has also written for Men's Health, Sports Illustrated for Kids, the American Legion Magazine and Bicycling.