Building for the Future

Leslie C. McDaniel

Leslie C. McDaniel

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If you're of a certain age, you remember a time when store-bought toys were the exception, not the rule. It was a time when boys entertained themselves by taking apart gadgets and small appliances. They'd see what made them tick, then put them back together, or convert them to a new use.

Today, of course, kids play computer games. Basic bicycle repair is beyond the reach of most. To a kid in the nineties, the inner workings of an electric can opener might just as well be dictated by witchcraft as by gears.

Such things came to mind as I pondered the number of small manufacturers that once blossomed across the U.S. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of them, coast to coast. Whether they made plows, or washers, or windmills, or engines, they all put their unique stamp on what were basically simple, universal pieces of machinery.

Articles in this issue tell that story: a collection of 700 unique washing machines, a collection of dozens of different grinders, a book capturing just a portion of the hundreds of horse drawn plows manufactured in this country. Optimism and innovation poured from such ventures: Each manufacturer thought he had a better idea.

A few of those small manufacturers, through vision or chance, endured and prospered and continue in operation today. The vast majority, though, are gone. And with them, a chapter in America's entrepreneurial history ended.

Before the advent of fast, efficient transportation, small manufacturers thrived on captive regional audiences. Today, the combination of the Internet and a highly sophisticated transportation industry have created a very big market in a very small world. "Mom and Pop" operations still sprout these days, but they face incredible competition. And the focus, in this country at least, has been redirected from goods to services. The steel mills have been shut down; vast amounts of manufacturing has been outsourced to third world countries. The times, simply, have changed. An economics lesson in Farm Collector? Not hardly. Just things that came to mind as a boy sat at my kitchen table one night recently, dissecting a bicycle bell in an attempt to remove an element regarded as "babyish." I held my tongue; I didn't nag. "A learning opportunity," I thought. Maybe, in this brave new world, all those hours spent playing Nintendo are good preparation for the challenges of the millennium. Just the same, a boy ought to know how things work. FC