Twelve years ago, Don Wagner discovered the tie between the Standard Garden Tool Co. and his home town of Montrose, Iowa. Since then, he's been hooked on learning more about the company, and on collecting the garden cultivators and seeders it manufactured.
"I found a cultivator at a yard sale right here in Montrose," Don says. "It was in nice shape – and the wording was real legible. It was the first one that I knew of that was made in Montrose."
Standard Garden Tool Co. identified its cultivators on the handles, with the name of the company on one side and the identification number of the cultivator on the other, Don says, noting the lettering was painted in black and then varnished.
After Don got his yard-sale cultivator home, he realized he already owned a Standard – one that had lost its lettering over time. He also got to thinking about the equipment having been made in Montrose and decided he'd do a little research on the firm.
Don's quest for more information took him to the Keokuk (Iowa) Public Library, where he was able to access microfilm copies of early-1900s editions of the Montrose Journal newspaper.
"It's so local, there wasn't a lot of detail," he says, "but I began copying old articles about the company."
Don learned that Standard Garden Tool Co. was founded in 1907 by a Montrose blacksmith named Willard A. Hancock. "Hancock invented and received a patent for a spring beam, double-wheel cultivator on Aug. 9, 1904," Don says, "and in 1907, he started manufacturing it under the name Standard Garden Tool Co." His plant was located at First and Cedar streets in what had formerly been his blacksmith shop.
In August 1908, Hancock received another patent, this one on his one-wheel cultivator invention. The same year, he was joined by a business partner, Robert L. Reed, who had operated the Montrose hardware store since 1896.
On May 9, 1911, Hancock received another patent, this one for his garden seeder invention, and on Dec. 8, 1914, another man, Egner Christensen, from whom Hancock earlier had bought the blacksmith shop, received a patent for his hand planter or seed drill, called the Midget. Christensen had gone to work for Hancock in the garden tool business.
Over the years, Don says, the Standard plant was enlarged three times; for a long time, it was the only firm manufacturing garden tools west of the Mississippi River. During World War I, raw materials were hard to get, but the Depression didn't slow the company down much because by then Standard products were being sold through the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, and because people needed to garden for their food.
"They (Standard) sold worldwide," Don reports, "and shipped cultivators and seeders out of Montrose by the (rail) car load."
His newspaper research documents the company's purchase in 1916 of a heavy-duty stamper, used to stamp out the steel parts, and the purchase of a furnace, used to mold some of the steel parts, such as the seeder's body.
"They made all the parts in Montrose except for the wheels and handles," he says, "and they bought those." Various wheels in his collection suggest the company purchased from whoever submitted the cheapest bid: "Most are 16-spoke wheels," he says, "but some have as few as eight spokes."
They bought handles "in the rough," and sanded and finished them at the Montrose facility. Don has collected only oak ones to date, but ash also may have been used. "I've never seen anything like a bill to know where they came from," he says.
In 1917, American Fork and Hoe Co. of Cleveland, bought Standard. Don says the Montrose company continued under the same management except for Hancock, who left garden tools behind for jewelry with the change in ownership.
"Mr. Hancock bought jewelry stores in Keokuk, Iowa, and in Fayetteville, Ark.," Don says. "I can remember when the Hancock Jewelry Store was still going in Keokuk, but I was real young. He was a blacksmith, though; can you imagine?" Hancock later retired to Hannibal, Mo., where he died in 1972.
Reed continued to run the company in Montrose until it moved in 1934 to Fort Madison, Iowa. After that, he had a sales representative-type position with the company, working with local dealers who sold the American Fork and Hoe Co. products. In 1939, he retired and moved to California. Also, the entire Montrose factory was moved to the American Fork and Hoe facility in Fort Madison, where Standard tools continued to be made until 1957.
After American bought Standard, Don says, the identification changed a bit on the cultivators, which helps in dating them. After 1917, one handle continued to carry the name "Standard," the model number and "Montrose True Temper." The term "True Temper" previously was identified with American Fork and Hoe products. The other handle was marked "American Fork and Hoe Co."
Don notes that American Fork and Hoe actually was an older company than Standard, and one associated with good quality. According to the company's website, it was founded in 1808 as The Old Stone Shop, and then in 1902, American was created with a merger of 17 regional steel goods firms. The firm was renamed "True Temper" in 1949, to reflect its expertise in metallurgy, and today is called Ames-True Temper and described as "the world's largest manufacturer of non-powered lawn and garden tools."
While Don was researching, he also was steadily collecting. He began to watch more closely for Standard tools at yard sales and flea markets, and in time, he became acquainted with Egner Christensen's son, Owen, who still lives in Montrose. Eventually, he was able to purchase some of the most prized pieces in his collection from Owen Christensen.
Among those items is a prototype Midget seeder, which Don found in "a box of parts" the younger Christensen offered to sell him. "You can see where he (Egner Christensen) soldered it together."
Also, he has three styles of wheels made for Midget seeders: one from the company's early period, 1907-17, another from the second period, 1917-34, and a third style, made after 1934 in Fort Madison, which does not have any stamping on it identifying where it was made. Only "Midget" is stamped on one side.
All totaled, Don now has about 20 Midgets, and a dozen of the cultivators, both two- and one-wheel versions, some by Standard, some by American.
The cultivators, he says, are harder to find than the seeders. "Many were left out, and the painting disappeared, or they were painted over," he says. "I've taken paint off some to uncover original lettering."
Whether the lettering remains visible or not, Don notes, a Standard cultivator is easy to identify by its distinctive "thumb nut" adjustment mechanism. Most garden cultivators of this era have two bolts that must be unscrewed in order for adjustments to be made, but the Standards all have the easy-to-use thumb nut, which no doubt contributed to their popularity 100 years ago.
He says now that his collection of garden tools is established, he is wondering if any garden tool collector clubs exist, as he'd sure like to join up. FC
For more information about Don's collection or to share information on garden tool collecting clubs, contact him at 2881 Hwy. 61, Montrose, IA 52639, (319) 463-5991.