Artistic Artifacts

Jim McGhee's collection of artistic artifacts is all about utility and visual appeal.

| April 2006

  • Jim's Mascot
    Jim and his mascot: “Wrench Man.” Wallace Keller, Mt. Horeb, Wis., one of Jim’s friends, created Wrench Man from wrenches, a little sheet metal and steel wool.
  • Measuring Sticks
    Wheat-like sprays of dealership measuring sticks coupled with a horse-hitch’s evener provide a focal point for this display of cast iron planter lids, cream separator shelves, planter plates, seed box ends and wrenches – all relating to the International Harvester Co.
  • Three-quarter-inch silo hoop wrench
    Three-quarter-inch silo hoop wrench made for (or by) the Beaver Silo & Box Mfg. Co.
  • These wrenches are all related to Case
    These wrenches are all related to Case. Those across the bottom are from the Case Threshing Machine Co. At upper left: part of a Case automobile toolset, cranks for adjusting Case grain binders and a fire hose nozzle (center) from a Case steam engine.
  • Rope-twisting machine
    McMillan & Kant of Beaver Dam, Wis., made this unusual rope-twisting machine. This foot platform was made by the Plano Mfg. Co. for one of their Jones Steel Header units.
  • Jim McGhee's unusual tool predating ratchet-type wire stretchers.
    An unusual tool predating ratchet-type wire stretchers, this Rein Leitzke stretcher is designed with a hinge connecting the handle and hook. When the hook is placed behind a post, pressure on the handle both clamps the wire near the hinge and pulls it taut.
  • Jim McGhee's cast iron funnel was used to add lubricating oil to Titan tractors.
    This cast iron funnel was used to add lubricating oil to Titan tractors, while the oilcans offered more precise oiling of anything but tractors in later years.
  • Jim McGhee’s Fuller & Johnson display panel.
    Jim McGhee’s Fuller & Johnson display panel includes a cultivator seat (top) and a sulky plow seat in addition to planter box lids and the rectangular tobacco transplanter water tank lid. The tools include many implement and engine wrenches, sockets and an ignition wrench at the lower left. The item to the left of the water tank lid is a Fuller & Johnson watch fob.
  • Jim McGhee's panel devoted to the companies of International Harvester.
    Another panel devoted to the companies of International Harvester. At the center is a colorful Plano Jones Rake Seat with a Buffalo-Pitts threshing machine wrench in the upper right. The long wrench mounted diagonally above the seat is a Parlin & Orendorff gang plow wrench; it is surrounded by cream separator wrenches and plow wrenches. The plow wrench theme continues below the seat and ends with a pair of Keystone implement wrenches in the bottom center.
  • International Harvester
    This beautifully preserved Lily cream separator was a product of the International Harvester Co. and is slated for restoration.
  • Wisconsin
    Wisconsin
  • Plano Jones seat
    This display panel uses the brightly colored Plano Jones seat as a focal point with a Plano reaper toolbox at the bottom, elongated gang-plow wrenches with cast steel ends welded to steel bar stock, adjustable wrenches, separator wrenches and other plow wrenches.

  • Jim's Mascot
  • Measuring Sticks
  • Three-quarter-inch silo hoop wrench
  • These wrenches are all related to Case
  • Rope-twisting machine
  • Jim McGhee's unusual tool predating ratchet-type wire stretchers.
  • Jim McGhee's cast iron funnel was used to add lubricating oil to Titan tractors.
  • Jim McGhee’s Fuller & Johnson display panel.
  • Jim McGhee's panel devoted to the companies of International Harvester.
  • International Harvester
  • Wisconsin
  • Plano Jones seat

"There is beauty all around, if only we can see it," explains farmer, artist and tool collector Jim McGhee, Hollandale, Wis., as he looks at the fields surrounding his farm. "I am drawn to beautiful, utilitarian things just as I am drawn to this beautiful landscape." Jim is quick to point out that there is unsurpassed natural beauty in the world around him, but it is human creativity that compels him as a collector. "Look at the intricate details cast into this foot platform," Jim says. "Imagine the skill and accuracy of the people who carved the pattern for things like this."

Utility and visual appeal are the hallmarks of Jim's collection. He is particularly enthusiastic about cast pieces, at once artful and functional. "My collection is really a celebration of the creativity of the people who made these pieces," Jim says. "They must've cared about bringing a little visual joy to the person who used them every day."

As a student of the visual arts, Jim was just days away from completing his undergraduate degree when he was called home to help run the family dairy farm. Although he never looked back, while running the farm Jim still found time to hone his woodworking skills and was once contracted to build a large pipe organ - a project combining his love of art and music. Now retired from farming, he's found a way to combine the artist and the collector within by creating cast iron collages that engage the eye and the mind.

Iron art

Jim initially collected cast iron seats and tools because they were interesting to look at, relatively inexpensive and easy to find. He was especially interested in ornate objects with the company name worked into the piece. Likewise, he's collected hand tools where the principal structural web (and/or chord) has the maker's name or the brand cast through them, although many more simply have the identifying information cast as raised letters and numbers. In either form, the identity information proves useful for learning more.



As his cast iron collection grew, Jim wanted to learn more about individual items, so he searched for old catalogs, parts books and buyer's guides. "I use the buyer's guides to cross-reference part numbers," he says. That way, he can learn exactly what an old piece of cast iron was used for. Jim has a couple of intricate cast pieces he identified this way: a foot platform from a Plano Mfg. Co. Jones steel header, and a footrest from a Parlin & Orendorff stalk cutter. "I might buy an interesting piece because it appeals to me visually," Jim says. "Then I can have fun trying to figure out what it is and what it was used for."

As Jim studied his cast iron pieces, immersing himself in the history of the manufacturers, he was struck by the breadth and depth of relatively specific types of castings from an individual manufacturer. Understanding the pieces collectively helped him see the larger corporate picture. "I noticed I had groups of items made by one manufacturer at different times, or representing different brands of an individual company, and I thought about how they related to the history of that company," Jim says. "Integrating all of the little pieces helps me to understand the big picture." Understanding the integration, and wanting to display some of his items at shows, Jim looked at his collection in a new way.



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