Accidental Collection of Tool Grinders

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A selection of grinders in Robert Schwab's rolling display. Robert exhibits his collection at 10-12 shows each year.
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Pedal power – provided by Robert Schwab – gets this McCormick-Deering chain-driven sickle bar grinder going.
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The oldest grinder in Robert's collection: This treasure was patented in 1868, and probably dates to the late 1800s. To use it, you'd brace the end of it against your hip and turn the crank to activate the Carborundum tip.
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A selection of grinders lined up in Robert's barn. None are sickle bar grinders.
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Pieces from the collection of Robert Schwab
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An Ideal Lawn Mower Grinder. Patents on the piece are dated 1908 and 1910.

Robert Schwab didn’t plan to be a collector of tool grinders. It just happened.

“I swapped for a grinder to fix the mower I had,” he says. “I hadn’t realized I was collecting until I had a lot of them. It used to be that at every farm sale there was a tool grinder. Now they’re rare. I don’t know why that is. I’m interested in buying or trading, but I’m low budget.”

Robert has two big barns at his home outside Hagerstown, Md. One contains a workshop where he used to fix and rebuild buggy wheels for local owners. He has an extensive collection of old tools, some handmade, and a variety of equipment related to horses, wagons, and horse-drawn equipment. Tucked away in a protected corner is a 1914 horse-drawn mail wagon originally from Inwood, W.Va. In the adjoining paddock, there’s an ancient horse named King.

A native of Erie, Pa., Robert grew up working on a farm and is familiar with rural life. Prior to retirement, he was employed at a Hagerstown truck factory as a heating and refrigeration mechanic.

“I’ve always liked old stuff,” he says. “I have a lot of one-horse stuff. Most stuff is for two horses. I’ve got a Jones Junior one-horse mower that’s 100 years old.”

His tool grinder collection includes more than 30 different types of implements used for sharpening tools around the farm. In 1998, he built himself a special wagon with fold-down sides in which to display the tool grinders he has restored. Hitched to a one-ton flatbed truck, it’s a rig that is familiar to show-goers in a four-state area.

“I do get a lot of compliments on it,” he says. “If you don’t like to show off a little bit, you wouldn’t go to these shows. I go to 10 or 12 a year.”

Besides the familiar sickle bar grinders, Robert has a chisel grinder and one that sharpens harrow disks. There’s also a husker shredder grinder, and a knife sharpener. Scattered here and there around the barns are another 20 to 30 grinders waiting for his attention, along with cabinets full of parts he’s picked up along the way. There’s also an Ideal Lawn Mower Grinder made by Root Heath Manufacturing Company, Plymouth, Ohio, designed to sharpen the blades on old reel mowers.

Robert is not especially concerned about the exact ages of the individual pieces in his collection.

“How do you put a date on something that’s made between 1860 and 1940?” he asks. “You know something because of the time the company was in business. I research a lot of patents. I’ve got copies of 145 of them. The earliest is 1868. I go down to the Patent Office in Crystal City (Va.) and look for them.”

The 1868 patent is for a sickle bar grinder. Dated Feb. 18, it includes the names of W.H. Laubach, Philadelphia, Pa., and George Mellen, Alexandria, Va.

“Supposedly the five companies that formed International Harvester are Champion, Deering, Piano, McCormick and Milwaukee,” Robert says. “When IH started selling stuff, they continued to have the (original) names on it. Later, they acquired Osborne and Emerson-Brantingham. Most people like to get the International Harvester grinders. I like them all, especially the oddball ones. You can find some with a real strange name. People had workshops and small factories, and they made all kinds of stuff. That’s why there are so many patents. But a lot of farmers couldn’t afford all these grinders. They made do with a whetstone.”

While many of the grinders are made to be hand-held or secured to a workbench, some are pedal-driven. Robert has a fully operational chain-driven McCormick-Deering sickle bar grinder that was patented in 1901 by E.A. Johnstone of Chicago, which also patented its pedal stand in 1903. Robert says his was probably made in the 1920s.

“The sickle bar grinders that move can be made stationary to grind other things,” Robert says. “If you clamp a grinder to a workbench, you can use it as a tool sharpener. And if you change the stone to a saw gummer stone, you can deepen the teeth of a regular wood saw.” Current prices for grinders, which were out of production by 1940, vary considerably.

“You can buy them for $6 up to $75, depending on where you’re at,” Robert says. “Most average around $20 … you never know. Sometimes I buy something at a flea market and then take it to an auction and it goes for a scandalous price. You never can tell.”

Robert is not the only collector in the family. His wife, Hazel, has her own hobby collections back at the house.

“She has her junk inside, and I have mine outside,” Robert says. “It works out just fine.” FC

For more information: Robert Schwab, 9733 Garis Shop Road, Hagerstown, MD 21740.

Jill Teunis is a freelance writer living in Damascus, MD. She is interested in writing about communities, their people and history.

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