It’s easy to idealize the small farm of the early 1900s as a haven of pastoral bliss.
The reality, however, can be a bit less charming. Hog lice, for instance, presented a significant problem for farmers. Severe infestations caused sores and hair loss. And in the days before vaccinations and antibiotics were common, hog cholera also posed a very real threat. In years of severe outbreaks, Midwest farmers faced potentially devastating losses.
Against that backdrop, the hog oiler made its debut. Collectors Bob and Louise Coates say that farmers were a ready market for a simple, inexpensive cure – and oil filled the bill. Dispensed by contact when a hog rubbed up against an oiler, the thick fluid effectively smothered lice. Although medicated oil was available, additives were probably little more than hype.
The government never really endorsed oilers, Bob notes, and in fact suggested the devices were ineffective in combating disease. “They recommended mopping or dipping,” he says. Farmers, though, saw the oiler as cheap, easy protection – if not against cholera, then against lice and skin conditions. Many used spent oil in the devices (rather than purchase “medicated oil”); many more made their own oilers. But the market for manufactured hog oilers was strong, and those are the pieces prized by collectors today.
Bob and Louise, who live in Deerfield, Wis., first stumbled onto hog oilers at an engine show in 1976. “We had been going to shows for several years and thought we’d seen it all,” Louise recalls. “Then we saw these mysterious objects.” Seven years passed before they found their first oiler. “It got easier, for a while,” Louise says. “Other collectors told us the first 25 are easy.” Indeed. “When we showed six, everyone laughed. The next year we had 12 and the third year we had 24,” she says. “By then, people were taking them a little more seriously because they were seeing examples they’d never seen before.”
The couple’s collection today includes more than 150 unique pieces. “We’ve kind of hit a wall with acquisitions,” Louise says – but not for lack of trying. Like all ardent collectors, Bob and Louise stage a broad-based attack. They’ve hunted oilers, followed referrals, pursued leads from other collectors, scoured flea markets and made trades. Their collection includes hog waterers, troughs, salesman’s samples and even a hog breeding crate patent model. They draw the line at hog tools.
Oilers come in a variety of styles: Fence-mounted, walk-through, weight-activated pump, ratchet-governed wheel, roller-type and post-type. The double-wheelers, Columbians and Sipes are the most common; the single-chain oilers and single-roller Hog Joys are the next most common. Depending on what they’re made of, oilers range in weight from 10 to 150 pounds. “Sometimes people won’t bring them to shows,” Bob says, “because they’re so heavy.”
The oilers’ sheer mass is easy to ignore, until you transport the relics. On one occasion, Bob and Louise rolled down I-80 in an aging pickup with a full load of old iron. A leisurely outing took on a bit of drama when they realized the sound they were hearing was that of the truck’s welds popping.
Those scouting oilers should expect to find incomplete units. “Tanks are often gone and other parts will be missing or broken,” Louise says. “Iron gets brittle with age, and some of these were not well built in the first place. If they’ve been left out in the winter, they’re probably going to be cracked.” Oilers are most prevalent in what the couple identifies as “the hog belt” of Illinois and Iowa, followed by eastern Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.
Many oilers were swept up in war-era scrap drives, and farms with scrap heaps are few and far behind, Bob says. A good tip for new collectors: “Talk to people who sell farm iron and tell them what you’re interested in,” he says.
Digging for clues
With the singular focus of police detectives, Bob and Louise put as much time and energy into researching hog oilers as some people put into tracing their family roots. They are experienced patent sleuths, and have visited historical societies, agricultural libraries and sleepy small towns once home to a manufacturer.
“We’ve dropped in on people out of the blue,” Louise says. “Sometimes they were surprised to learn that their grandpa had been a manufacturer or an inventor. In some cases we’ve had phenomenal luck; other times we’ve had no luck at all. But we like to travel, go someplace new, and it’s always fun to see other collectors.”
The couple’s research has turned up about 200 unique patents for hog oilers (as well as cases of patent infringement). “We’ve seen some real zingers,” Louise says. The earliest dates to 1902 but the devices didn’t really take off until 1912, Bob says. “We refer, tongue in cheek, to 1912-18 as ‘the golden age’ for hog oilers,” he says. Most oilers manufactured in that era were made of cast iron. After 1920, oilers increasingly featured steel, sheet metal, cables and chain construction, and they were modified for use on other livestock.
Some of the companies that produced medicated oil also sold oilers. Initially expensive, oilers became increasingly affordable; ultimately they were offered as a premium to oil buyers.
Erasing the years
Bob and Louise have restored many of their oilers, but it’s still easy for Louise to imagine them in their element, covered with crankcase oil and mud. They’ve seen a few in original, unused condition – but not many. When they restore, they avoid body putty and similar finishes, opting not to over-restore. They use glass bead-blast (less corrosive, Bob says, than sand), Rust-Oleum and One-Shot sign painter’s enamel.
Restoration is a personal choice, Bob says. “I don’t think it affects values either way,” he says. “Most of our oilers were bought unpainted or with old paint.” Today, their restored pieces show a few chips and dings, the result of life on the show circuit. But Bob and Louise are not overly concerned: The couple is more interested in sharing their collection than in hiding it in a climate-controlled environment. Their oilers, for instance, have been featured in displays at two regional art galleries.
“We cleaned them and touched up the paint; just gussied them up, and the staff put them on pedestals for display,” Louise recalls. There was live music and refreshments; people wearing suits. It really took hog oilers mainstream. People like hog oilers. When you first see them from a distance, they even look like little sculptures.”
Right place, right time
The prize of the Coateses’ collection is a Swine-Ezer oiler dating to about 1915. An exceedingly hard-to-find piece, it all but fell into the couple’s lap. While displaying their collection at a show in Ankeny, Iowa, they visited with a man as he viewed their oilers. “I have one in a shed that I don’t see here,” he said. Bob showed him a book of hog oilers and when the man saw the value assigned to the one in his shed, “he went white,” Louise recalls.
Later, the man returned. “While we were packing up on the last day, he came back with the oiler – a Swine-Ezer – in his car.” The unit’s legs were missing, a familiar problem with that model. “The legs just slide into grooves on the body of the piece,” Louise says. “If it wasn’t bolted to a platform, it could easily be knocked over and the legs lost or broken.”
Missing legs posed no problem for the couple. Ironically, one of the Coateses’ fellow collectors also had a legless Swine-Ezer. When he got a set of legs cast for his oiler, he had a spare set made for them – even though, at that point, they didn’t even have a lead on a Swine-Ezer. “Maybe you’ll get one someday,” he said. “We got the legs Memorial Day weekend, and the oiler on July 4,” Louise recalls.
The couple’s truck was filled to bursting before they bought the particularly large oiler, but there was no question that they’d find space for their new acquisition. “We were going to get it in the truck no matter what,” Louise says. “If I had to hold it in my lap, I would have!”