Hog Oilers Were Cheap Insurance

Stockmen turned to hog oilers to battle vermin and disease

| June 2009

It’s easy to idealize the small farm of the early 1900s as a haven of pastoral bliss.

The reality, however, can be a bit less charming. Hog lice, for instance, presented a significant problem for farmers. Severe infestations caused sores and hair loss. And in the days before vaccinations and antibiotics were common, hog cholera also posed a very real threat. In years of severe outbreaks, Midwest farmers faced potentially devastating losses.

Against that backdrop, the hog oiler made its debut. Collectors Bob and Louise Coates say that farmers were a ready market for a simple, inexpensive cure – and oil filled the bill. Dispensed by contact when a hog rubbed up against an oiler, the thick fluid effectively smothered lice. Although medicated oil was available, additives were probably little more than hype.

The government never really endorsed oilers, Bob notes, and in fact suggested the devices were ineffective in combating disease. “They recommended mopping or dipping,” he says. Farmers, though, saw the oiler as cheap, easy protection – if not against cholera, then against lice and skin conditions. Many used spent oil in the devices (rather than purchase “medicated oil”); many more made their own oilers. But the market for manufactured hog oilers was strong, and those are the pieces prized by collectors today.

“Mysterious objects”

Bob and Louise, who live in Deerfield, Wis., first stumbled onto hog oilers at an engine show in 1976. “We had been going to shows for several years and thought we’d seen it all,” Louise recalls. “Then we saw these mysterious objects.” Seven years passed before they found their first oiler. “It got easier, for a while,” Louise says. “Other collectors told us the first 25 are easy.” Indeed. “When we showed six, everyone laughed. The next year we had 12 and the third year we had 24,” she says. “By then, people were taking them a little more seriously because they were seeing examples they’d never seen before.”

The couple’s collection today includes more than 150 unique pieces. “We’ve kind of hit a wall with acquisitions,” Louise says – but not for lack of trying. Like all ardent collectors, Bob and Louise stage a broad-based attack. They’ve hunted oilers, followed referrals, pursued leads from other collectors, scoured flea markets and made trades. Their collection includes hog waterers, troughs, salesman’s samples and even a hog breeding crate patent model. They draw the line at hog tools.

Oilers come in a variety of styles: Fence-mounted, walk-through, weight-activated pump, ratchet-governed wheel, roller-type and post-type. The double-wheelers, Columbians and Sipes are the most common; the single-chain oilers and single-roller Hog Joys are the next most common. Depending on what they’re made of, oilers range in weight from 10 to 150 pounds. “Sometimes people won’t bring them to shows,” Bob says, “because they’re so heavy.”

The oilers’ sheer mass is easy to ignore, until you transport the relics. On one occasion, Bob and Louise rolled down I-80 in an aging pickup with a full load of old iron. A leisurely outing took on a bit of drama when they realized the sound they were hearing was that of the truck’s welds popping.

Those scouting oilers should expect to find incomplete units. “Tanks are often gone and other parts will be missing or broken,” Louise says. “Iron gets brittle with age, and some of these were not well built in the first place. If they’ve been left out in the winter, they’re probably going to be cracked.” Oilers are most prevalent in what the couple identifies as “the hog belt” of Illinois and Iowa, followed by eastern Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.