Artistic Artifacts

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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.
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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.
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Three-quarter-inch silo hoop wrench made for (or by) the Beaver Silo & Box Mfg. Co.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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This beautifully preserved Lily cream separator was a product of the International Harvester Co. and is slated for restoration.
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Wisconsin
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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.

“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.

He sought to create exhibits that were easy to haul, easy to set
up and compact to store. He also wanted to showcase groups of
related items, and he wanted the whole thing to be visually
engaging at a farm show. “I had seen a few tool displays that were
interesting but really overwhelming,” Jim explains. “His goal was
to create displays making use of shapes and deliberate layout to
lead the eye from one item to the next while symbolically relating
some part of a company’s history.

Jim settled on a “canvas” of framed pegboard panels to create
his iron art. The panels are easy to haul and store, and with the
wrenches, seats and other parts wired in place, little effort is
required to set up or dismantle the display. The real work came in
the design. “I put the empty panels on the ground and placed things
and moved them around until it looked organic,” Jim says. “When
they had the same eye appeal as the agricultural landscape around
me, I called them done.”

To date, Jim has created several panels relating to
International Harvester, and he has materials for many more. On one
panel, he focused on a few of the companies that went into
International Harvester in the early years of the last century. At
the display’s center is his cherished Plano Mfg. Jones Rake Seat
(likely pre-IH) from which contours of wrenches appear to emerge in
spiral fashion. The wrenches include several specific to Buffalo
Pitts threshing machines, Parlin & Orendorff and Chattanooga
Plow Co. plows, Champion Machine Co. rakes, Keystone Mfg. Co. corn
shellers and IH cream separators. Together, these items offer a bit
of insight into International’s brands and breadth of offerings
shortly after the company’s formation.

In other panels, Jim celebrates the history of the Case
Threshing Machine Co., Case Plow Co. and Fuller & Johnson, a
Madison, Wis., builder of engines, tobacco transplanters,
cultivators, plows and more. Jim’s collection includes cultivator
seats, plow wrenches, planter box covers, transplanter water tank
lids, gas engine ignition wrenches and some items from the related
Madison Plow Co. “I got into the Case stuff because of the steam
engine wrenches,” Jim adds.

Only a relatively small proportion of Jim’s cast iron
collectibles have made it onto a display panel. Sometimes he
doesn’t have enough related pieces to make a cohesive display, and
many pieces simply can’t be easily attached to pegboard. Among
Jim’s prized pieces: a cast iron oil funnel once supplied by
International Harvester to help lubricate Titan tractors and a pair
of locally made sickle bar anvils. “The funnel is interesting
because it is big, heavy and unusual,” Jim says. “Who thinks of
cast iron and funnel at the same time?” The two sickle bar anvils
are marked with the maker (Rein Leitzke) and are virtually
identical in every way except location of manufacture – one is
marked Hustisford, Wis., while the other says Beaver Dam, Wis. Jim
notes that part of the story those tools tell is how the
manufacturer moved around over the years.

Beautiful bounty

As he researched tools and implement parts, Jim encountered
sales literature, postcards and lithographs. Though the imagery is
undeniably beautiful, Jim particularly appreciates the complexities
of the color lithograph process and the skill of those who bothered
to make the old printed material beautiful.

As a former dairy farmer, Jim has a natural interest in old
milking equipment. Jim’s dairy collection includes vacuum pumps, a
complete set (all sizes) of stainless steel IH milker pails,
new-old-stock inflations, pulsators, airlines, gaskets and more. He
even has several IH hit-and-miss gasoline engines, any one of which
could power the vacuum pump. A number of cream separators find
Jim’s place to be a good home, including his pride and joy, an
original condition and complete IH Lily cream separator. The Lily
was not Harvester’s first separator to hit the market, but its
lovely styling and small size made it very popular in the
farmhouse. Today, an intact Lily is a rare find indeed, and Jim
plans a careful restoration for his.

Jim’s tractor collection includes a 1927 McCormick-Deering
10-20, a 1929 International Harvester Farmall Regular, a Farmall M
and several other more recent models he farmed with. Quite possibly
the most unusual piece of machinery in Jim’s collection is his
beautifully original 1959 Model 91 self-propelled combine. Although
not that old by many measures, 45 years is ancient for a fully
functional combine. The Model 91 is especially unusual because it
was the only IH combine not built at the company’s East Moline,
Ill., plant, and the only one that was lever steered. Rather than
employing conventional rear-wheel steering, the Model 91 was
equipped with levers independently controlling power to the left
and right drive wheels much like today’s skid loader, and the rear
wheels are essentially large casters.

Work in progress

Jim doesn’t know where his artistic collecting will lead him
next. Once an active exhibitor, he’s cut his hectic show circuit to
a few events close to home. That leaves him with more time to find
the inner beauty in rust-, grease- or dirt-encapsulated objects,
clean them up, learn what can be learned about them, and celebrate
the hands and minds that worked so hard to create them.

“The day I come out here (into the shop) and it isn’t a totally
renewing experience is the day I am done,” Jim says over the
crescendo of a lovely Bach concerto emanating from speakers located
around the shop. “If I try to force it in one direction or another,
it quickly loses its appeal.”

For more information:

Jim McGhee, 8291 Highway 39, Hollandale, WI 53544; (608)
967-2147.

Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector, freelance
writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits
his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East
Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325;
(717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu

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