Farm Collector Blogs > First Things

Old Iron Archaeology

This much I know is true: A collector can set up a one-of-a-kind display at a show. It might be, say, a rarified hi-crop tractor built in ridiculously small numbers. It might be the only gas engine of its kind known to exist. It might be an impossibly early steam engine, immaculately restored. But if, 10 feet away, a guy tosses a gnarly old piece of rusted iron on a tarp in front of his display, with a hand-lettered sign that asks, “what is it?,” that’s where the crowd gathers.

The unknown has almost as much appeal as the hunt. At Farm Collector, that point is driven home on a very regular basis. Every day, we receive queries from readers. “I found this in my granddad’s barn… What is it?” And that’s the inspiration behind our newest special edition, Field Guide to Mystery Farm Tools II, just out this fall. Showcasing more than 160 additional tools, the new Field Guide is a great companion to our first Field Guide, published in 2010.

If there is a common denominator in this hobby, it might just be mystery tools. When we pick up that unknown relic, we become old iron archaeologists. Why? Because antique tools teach us how things were done a century ago. The role of a tractor or a gas engine or a windmill is obvious. But fencing tools teach us how early fences were constructed. A collapsible wire spool teaches us how the wire used to build those fences was sold at the local hardware or general store. And handmade cowpokes teach us how livestock were persuaded to leave those fences alone.

Change is a wily critter, slipping in, introducing new, banishing old. In the process, that which was once familiar is pushed aside and soon forgotten. Seventy years ago, acres and acres and acres of corn were picked and husked by hand. Today, the job is done by massive equipment guided by GPS. Just about everybody today knows what a GPS does; few have any idea what a husking hook is, or how absolutely essential it once was to the harvest. Our new Field Guide aims to clear some of that fog. In its pages you’ll find more than one key to the past. Go ahead: do some time traveling!