I was marveling over Dave and Janet Tempest's wonderful display of more than 150 apple peelers and more than 50 sets of egg scales at last summer's Rushville (Ind.) Pioneer Engineers show, when Dave asked if I had ever seen a raisin seeder. I didn't want to admit that I had never even heard of a raisin seeder! Dave, who lives at Scipio, Ind., has a large collection of these early wonders. Most are rare, unusual and, because of their scarcity, quite pricey. They're less rare, perhaps, to KOOKS: Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff.
I got a closer look at raisin seeders (and a lot more!) when I visited the Jennings County Historical Society's North American House Museum at Vernon, Ind. Dave and Janet Tempest are strong supporters of the historical society, and many of the couple's collectibles are displayed at the museum.
The collection there is so vast that at first I was overwhelmed by the quantity of items. Dave helped me get my focus back by showing me his collection of blacksmith-made, wrought iron items. "If a blacksmith made it, and it is original," he says, "I am attracted to it. I like things that are very old and unusual."
His criteria of "very old and unusual" is an understatement. His collection includes a wrought iron mole trap, sawtooth and chain fireplace trammels (used to raise and lower cooking pots in the old walk-in fire-places), clay pipe drier, pot pusher, crown hooks (to use in hanging meat), a kettle tipper (to trip the pot hanging in the fireplace), fat lamps, coffee grinders, tobacco cutters, sugar cutters, game roaster, waffle irons, tin kitchen (a set of skewers used to cook meat, rotisserie-style, in a fireplace) and a gate lock dating to the early 1700s.
Among Dave's favorite pieces is an 1890 double two-quart butter churn made by a blacksmith for his wife. The churn actually hammered down on the floor with every revolution of the handle. "What a peaceful gift for a blacksmith's wife," Dave says with a smile.
Early blacksmiths apparently tried their hand at almost anything. "Years ago, in rural areas, when you couldn't afford to buy something, you'd go to the blacksmith," Dave explains. "You'd tell him what you wanted, and he'd make it, and it would cost less than buying it at a store." Pride played into it as well. "Back then, a lot of it was art," he adds. "Part of being a good blacksmith was that you wanted people to talk about your work, how good it was."
A big part of Dave's collection is lemon squeezers. Dating to the early 1800s, the devices are ingenious and varied in design. One features a bust of George Washington surrounded by 13 stars (representing the 13 American colonies). Another, made of nickled cast iron, is covered with elaborate artwork depicting fruit-laden lemon trees. Another is a classic example of multi-tasking: It not only squeezed the lemon, but also cut it in quarters and had a nutcracker function as well.
Squeezers like these were used from about 1890 to 1940. Many were used in restaurants and cafes, Dave says. "Anything on legs was probably a commercial piece."
Soon, though, I had to see the item that brought me to the museum in the first place: the raisin seeder. This very dainty tool actually pushed seeds from a raisin, working like an early cherry pitter, yielding a seedless raisin. Dave's collection includes 10 raisin seeders, an amazing number to me, but he noted that a friend's collection includes as many as 30.
You may be wondering why you've never picked a seed out of a raisin. According to Dave, seedless grapes have only been around for about 100 years. "Before 1900, they dried the grapes and then had to seed every one, one at a time," he says. "To make a raisin cream pie was truly a labor of love!" Raisin seeders, he says, were probably only used for about 10 years, roughly 1890-1900.
Butter churns also show up in Dave's collection. He has a Funks Champion churn dating to 1880. Crafted of poplar and maple with an oak handle, even the churn's dasher is made of wood.
Dave's collection began about 17 years ago when he saw a friend's collection of apple peelers. "I used to work at a machine shop," he says, "and I just could not believe that somebody invented a complicated machine to do what you could do with a pocket knife. They're very elaborate machines, with more gears than you can imagine!"
In no time, he had the start of a collection. A friend encouraged him to attend an apple peeler convention, and bring his collection. "Well, I had 12 different peelers," Dave recalls. "I'm thinking, 'They're just going to die when they see that many different peelers!' So I went to the convention, and the guy at the first table I saw had 300 different peelers. I just put mine away. But it inspired me: I found 50 different peelers in my first year of collecting."
The apple peeler's heyday was from 1850-80, Dave says, when there were probably 300-400 manufacturers. In that era, when apples were a nearly universal staple, apple peelers were prized possessions. "Most every farm you see has a half dozen apple trees," Dave notes. "My grandmother said the peelers saved women so much work, that they wouldn't even let the kids touch them." Maybe that's why, he says, peelers are so often found in such good condition.
Condition influences prices, which are often already high. "The cost has slowed me down quite a bit," Dave says. "When I started collecting apple peelers, I was one of the first to pay $50 for a peeler. Now it's nothing to see them sell from $300-400 up to $8,000."
Dave enjoys uncovering connections to his collection. His 1890 Athol mincemeat chopper, for instance, was manufactured by Starrett Manufacturing Co., Athol, Mass. Starrett remains in business today, well-known as a quality manufacturer of precision measuring instruments for machinists and engineers. In exceptionally good working condition for a piece more than 100 years old, the chopper was carefully designed. An arm projecting from the chopper's side wheel moves the platform in the copper chopper drum very accurately. "Truly a Starrett precision tool," Dave notes.
A Clockworks spit jack is among the most prized and rare pieces in Dave's collection. Dating to the late 1600s or early 1700s, the spit jack was used to turn a meat-laden spit over a cooking fire. Two large gears on the piece were hand-forged and shaped by a blacksmith. "And he hand-cut every one of the teeth on those gears," Dave marvels. "It's still amazing to me to see it operate." Dave doesn't know where it was made (it could have been made in England, he speculates, or possibly by a colonial smith), but he does know it's special. "It's unbelievably rare," he says.
Dave's wife and children (now grown) have been closely involved in his hobby. "It's been interesting and a lot of fun," he says. "We just did it together." New collectors, he says, should get involved with KOOKS (Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff) and the Apple Parers Society. "If you're thinking about collecting this stuff, get around a bunch of people who know all about it, and who can help you get started."
- Bob Crowell lives in Batesville, Ind. He and his wife, Linda, represent Farm Collector, Gas Engine Magazine and Steam Traction at antique tractor shows throughout Indiana.
For more information:
■ Dave and Janet Tempest, 7735 W. 500 N., Scipio, IN 47273; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
■ Jennings County Historical Society Museum, Blacksmith Shop and Gift Shop, P.O. Box 335, Vernon, IN 47282; (812) 346 8989; open Monday through Thursday (except holidays), 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. No fee for admission; donations welcome. www.jenningscohs.org
■ Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff (KOOKS): Paul Smith, 1607 W. Park, Harlan, IA 51537; (712) 755-2225; e-mail: email@example.com
■ International Society for Apple Parer Enthusiasts, G.W. Laverty, 735 Cedarwood Terrace, Apt. 735B, Rochester, NY 14609; (716) 654-6998.