Many regard 1968 as the most historic year in modern American history. It was a year marked by assassinations of American leaders, capture of a U.S. ship, launch of the Tet Offensive, and the rise of the civil rights and student protest movements. It was a year in which we saw the first human orbit of the moon and the introduction of the 747 Jumbo Jet. Two groundbreaking television series made their debut in 1968: Laugh In on NBC, and 60 Minutes on CBS.
It was also the year when 29 Midwesterners — perhaps looking for a diversion from the news of the day — formed a regional affiliate of the Early American Industries Assn. (EAIA). Formerly organized as the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. (M-WTCA), the new group existed primarily to save early members the expense and inconvenience of traveling to New England to attend EAIA meetings.
Fifty years later, the group is going strong with more than 3,500 members representing 49 American states and eight foreign countries. Promoting the preservation and study of antique and traditional tools, the M-WTCA is an essential resource for today's tool collector. Through meetings, research and a quarterly magazine, the group remains highly relevant to an increasingly diverse community of collectors.
Members could, in theory, attend meetings 11 months a year. "The internet and online auction sites have altered the attendance at the meetings," says past president and longtime member Dave Heckel. "It's easy to go online to find tools. But there is nothing like going to a meeting to buy and sell, meet fellow collectors, watch programs on various aspects to tool collecting, and generally have a great time with people who have the same (or similar) interests as you do."
Meetings, magazine provide unique resources
The group holds two semi-annual meetings each year, and local meetings are held in each of 19 geographic areas two or three times a year. The semi-annual meetings, each held in a different location, feature a flea market (known internally as "tailgating") in the hotel parking lot, and inside space for buying and selling, educational displays, programs and a banquet.
"The camaraderie at the meetings is really special," Dave says. "It's like a family reunion of people you actually want to spend time with."
The group's quarterly magazine, The Gristmill, provides a strong resource for all members, but especially for those unable to attend meetings. "Originally it was a folksy newsletter full of meeting reports," says Dave, a past Gristmill editor. "Today it's more research-oriented. It's probably the single most important part of membership, especially for those who can't make it to the meetings." Members also receive a reprint of a different antique tool catalog each year.
Strong interest in woodworking tools
When the group formed 50 years ago, most of the charter members were primarily interested in primitive tools. "Some were also interested in woodworking and machinist tools," Dave says. As membership swelled, collectors became interested in manufactured tools, such as those produced by Stanley.
Today, in a seismic shift that's taken place over the course of five decades, nearly three-quarters of the membership collect woodworking tools. Many of those see active use in members' shops and garages. "Our membership provides a source of tools that are no longer available," Dave says.
"We have also noticed that many of our new members are interested in learning how to use these tools," says M-WTCA President Kerry McCalla, "and we hope to have demonstrators at some of our meetings who can assist them in the basics."
The listing of tools collected by MWTCA members is as diverse as the members themselves. A brief overview includes axes, hatchets, wrenches, rules, blacksmith's tools, cooper's tools, hammers, planes, braces, farm tools, measuring devices and 18th century tools.
Looking back, looking forward
M-WTCA puts significant emphasis on elaborate and carefully researched table-top displays at meetings. "Displays are a big thing," Dave says. Highly educational displays of tools, their historic use and manufacture, are recognized through awards representing several categories.
A well-organized Auxiliary provides a rich slate of activities for members' wives. Displays, programs, book discussions and tours fill the agenda at many meetings. "The women are very active collectors in their own right," Dave says, "collecting everything from pencil sharpeners to scissors, sewing machines to dressmaking tools."
The M-WTCA keeps a strong focus on the past, but also has a clear vision for the future. Each year, the organization funds scholarships to students attending accredited colleges and universities, vocational, technical and trade programs. Members also sponsor a summer internship, which for many years has been at George Washington's home in Mt. Vernon, Virginia. FC
For more information or details on membership, visit www.mwtca.org.
M-WTCA Member Profile: Dave Christen
As a boy, Dave Christen had a clear agenda during trips to town. "Very seldom did I go to town that I didn't stick my nose in the blacksmith shop," he says. "I grew up on a farm, and there were still a few blacksmiths back then."
Decades later, he remains captivated by the craft, practicing it in his shop in Wadena, Iowa, making repairs for customers who know they have nowhere else to turn. "I've been fixing and building since I was a kid," he says. "Repair is my vocation."
A member of the M-WTCA, he both uses and collects blacksmith-made tools. The hammer, tongs and forge are a smith's most basic tools. Dave also collects tools that show the smith's range, like axe heads with visible weld seams, or Damascus steel blades, or early shotgun barrels formed by a painstaking process of hand-spiraling long strips of steel around a rod.
Dave has a smith's understanding of the art and science of repair. "You've got to find the cause of the problem," he says. "Anybody can find the effect. But when you find the cause, you can fix it. And sometimes, to get things where you want them, you have to use heat. We're doing basically the same thing as the old boys did. It's unbelievable what some of the old blacksmiths could do."
M-WTCA Member Profile: George Wanamaker
George Wanamaker's hobby has helped him understand the world in a unique way. A collector of unique rules and tape measures, he sees things in increments. "Almost everything has to be measured," he observes.
George, who lives in Macomb, Illinois, began collecting tools in 1974. By the early 1980s, he narrowed his interest to tools manufactured by Stanley. Then he zeroed in on Stanley tape measures. "I don't have all of them," he says, "but I'm close." Then he branched into tape measures produced by other manufacturers.
"Each company had its own design. For instance, the early Master Rule had a punched hole at the 1-inch mark so you could attach it to a surface with a nail, and, with a pencil, draw a circle of any diameter up to the length of the tape. Master Rule was the only company to use that feature."
Today he concentrates on four categories: folding boxwood rules, zigzag rules produced from 1900-35, tape measures and miscellaneous measurement tools (cigar measures, for instance). "There are more than 1,000 types of oddball measures," he says.
Good tape measures are increasingly hard to find. "A lot are in collections," George admits. Tool manufacturer catalogs help collectors know the size of the galaxy, but outliers are not unheard of. "Every now and then I'll turn up a new one, when I thought I had them all," he says. "Right now, I'm looking for what I don't know exists."
M-WTCA Member Profile: Scotty Fulton
As a newlywed, Scotty Fulton needed tools of his own. When he saw the auctioneer pull a hammer out of a bucket and hold it up, Scotty jumped on it. "As they passed that rusty old bucket back to me, the bottom fell out," he recalls. "And there was a whole bunch of hammers I'd never seen before. All I knew about was claw hammers and ball peen hammers."
When an onlooker tried to buy one of the hammers, Scotty said no. "After that," he says, "I'd buy any hammer I saw that wasn't like one in that bucket. People would tell me about flea markets where they'd seen hammers and I started going to those. My dad said, 'Son, you are crazy.'"
Today his collection at his home in Maysville, Kentucky, includes 18,000 hammers (and another 800 duplicates he'd happily sell). "My museum is something to see," he says. "Most people are amazed. There are women who walk in, turn around and walk right back out."
A farmer and retired teacher, Scotty hasn't gotten too far from where he started. But his hobby has brought the world to him. "I didn't realize there were so many different types of hammers when I started collecting them 50 years ago," he says. "Blacksmiths, leather workers, welders, machinists, saw makers, loggers, stone workers, coal miners, ship builders, bridge builders, piano tuners, farriers, they all had their own hammers. Railroad hammers, snow knockers, hitch-pin hammers, veneering, crate-and-box opening, marking and tattoo hammers for meat — there's a hammer for every function.
"I even have the one they used when they put in my artificial hip," he says with a chuckle.
M-WTCA Member Profile: Susan Witzel
When her husband, LeRoy, began collecting tools, Susan Witzel followed suit. "If he was going to hunt for tools," she says, "I figured I had to have something to look for, too."
Twenty-five years later, she's built a fine collection of kitchen collectibles at her home in Humboldt, Iowa. "I have never been a history buff," she says. "But when you become a collector, you learn about history in a new way. It makes history come alive."
Her collection takes in the entire galaxy of kitchen items: raisin seeders, corn creamers, vegetable slicers, food grinders, nutmeggers, peelers, choppers, slicers, dicers, graters, ice cream makers, ice cube cutters and punching devices to use when making crackers.
"To think women used to bake their own crackers," she marvels. "It's just so interesting to see how people figured out ways to make their lives easier. You wouldn't want a raisin pie with seeds! Before seedless grapes, raisin seeders made pies easier to make."
An active member of the M-WTCA Auxiliary, Susan admits that the hunt for treasures has grown more challenging. "I only want things that are very unusual," she says. "I don't find much anymore. I usually buy from other collectors. The items I buy remind me of them and the interests we share. Friendships are my most treasured collectible." FC
Leslie C. McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Email her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.
Collecting tools: Getting started is easy!
Sponsored by Astragal Press
Starting a tool collection? You'll probably acquire most of your tools by buying them, so buy wisely. Learn to recognize value and know where to find it. Knowledge comes with experience, but you can also learn a lot from reading, observing and talking to dealers and fellow collectors.
Key factors that determine the value of antique tools include condition, aesthetic appeal, supply and demand, regional preferences, tool size, quantity and completeness of sets. Antique tools are often found at garage, home and estate sales; flea markets; farm and household auctions; tool dealers; antique shows; regional tool auctions; club events and online sites. Also, don't forget about friends' and relatives' basements, garages and barns. People often give away rusty old tools just to get rid of them!
One of the best and most enjoyable ways to learn more about tools is to join a tool group. You'll meet collectors who are happy to share their knowledge, and you'll have the opportunity to buy, sell or exchange all sorts of tools. Two welcoming and established national organizations include the Early American Industries Assn. and Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. Both hold national and regional gatherings and publish informative magazines for members. For the successful collector, a good library of tool catalogs, identification guides, patent drawing references and restoration tips is essential.
You may consider specializing in a line of tools produced by a specific maker or manufacturer. Or, concentrate on a tool type, trade or material; artistic merit, technical interest, date or manufacturing location. Or you may choose to collect tools you intend to use. In the end, collect what you like and enjoy the experience!
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