Early-Day Sickle Bar Grinders Salvaged

Collector closing in on complete set of sickle bar grinders

Two sickle bar grinders from the collection of Gailey Henderson

Two sickle bar grinders from the collection of Gailey Henderson, Williamstown, W. Va. The first grinder was patented in 1859 by David Hinman, Berea, Ohio. By the turn of the century, Gailey says 60 patents had been filed for sickle bar grinders.

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Gailey Henderson is a man on a mission. He's closing in on a complete set of the farm memorabilia he collects. For some, the search for the final six or so pieces would become a, uh, grind. But for the collector known as "the Grinder Man," the hunt continues to be a lark. 

Gailey, who lives in Williamstown, W.Va., collects sickle bar grinders once used to sharpen the bar on horse-drawn mowing equipment.

"I have 50 altogether," he says, "and I know of at least six more that I don't have."

His oldest piece was made before the turn of the century. The grinder's heyday was from roughly 1900 to 1940.

"When electric side grinders came in," he says, "these went out of fashion real fast."

His collection started as the result of a chance question from a friend 13 years ago.

"I was at a show in Jacksonville, W.Va.," he says. "I had engines on display there. We were out looking around, and a friend of mine picked up a grinder and asked me 'Do you know what this is?'

"'Sure I do,' I told him, 'because my dad used to wear out my arm cranking one.'"

The grinder was a simple piece of equipment. The most notable development in its evolution was a change from chain drive to gear drive. At least one had a reservoir for water to cool the stone while grinding. Otherwise, the key component was plain old elbow grease, Gailey says.

"It took probably a half hour of cranking to sharpen a blade," he recalls.

His collection does, however, show the progress of casting technology.

"The older ones have curved spokes," he says. "They couldn't cast a straight spoke in a gear until 1910. Before then, if they made a straight spoke, as it cooled, it cracked. But the curved spoke had some 'give' in it."

In 13 years, he's seen his collection grow to numbers he never expected.

"When I started collecting, I thought there might be a dozen different grinders," he says. "If there'd only been a dozen, I'd have quit years ago. But this old stuff is a good investment."

He has no daydreams about getting rich off of old iron. But he has seen values rise.

"I bought my first grinders for $5 to $7 each," he says. "The most I've paid for one is $90. Generally, you'll pay $35 to $40 for grinders at shows."

Gailey's grinders are left basically as he finds them.

"I do free them up so they'll work," he says.

Most of those he finds need some attention.

"Typically, you'll find a complete grinder, but a piece will be broken," he says. "You're pretty much out of luck when it comes to finding parts. I've made chains myself to replace broken or missing ones."

Occasionally, he's able to salvage parts from a spare. That's particularly true with the stones.

"The stones are getting hard to find," he says. "And I've lost three in the last year. They got rained on, and then the sun baked them, and they cracked."

Gailey is a regular at shows in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and Florida.

"You'll find certain brands in certain areas," he says. "I have one that was made in Canada; it's marked with a maple leaf. The rarest one I have is made by Montgomery Wards. I found it in Woodstock, Va. It is as rare a grinder as I have ... I've only seen one other one like it.

"International made 12 grinders, and I have 11 of them," he says. "The IHC merger in 1909 brought several companies together. That's why there's so many IHC grinders.

'I have one that was made before 1909; those made after 1909 have the IHC circle logo."

Retired from Shell Chemical, where he worked for 23 years, Gailey has the time and patience to continue his search. At this point, he'd be happy just to see a picture of a rare grinder, like a John Deere model he's heard of.

"The grinders I need are getting harder to find," he says. "But this old iron ... it's like cigarettes and whiskey: It's habit forming." FC 

For more information: Gailey Henderson, RR 1, Box 264, Williamstown, WV, 26187; (304) 464-4579.