When Bill Roads speaks about his extensive collection of antique tools and related collectibles, his excitement is palpable. He owns thousands of vintage pieces: engines, wrenches, spark plugs, railroad spikes, patent drawings, product catalogs, advertisements and lawn mowers, all dating from the 1880s to the 1920s.
He is an International Harvester enthusiast, but he is especially crazy for anything produced in his native Marshall County, Iowa.
The county seat of Marshall County, Marshalltown was once known as the “Pittsburg of the Midwest” because of its strong industrial base. “If it has Marshalltown on it,” Bill says, “I have a bad habit of buying it.”
Building on hands-on experience
A retired mechanic, Bill has decades of experience working on cars, trucks and airplanes. He served in the U.S. Army from 1973-80 and was an aircraft structural mechanic in the Iowa Air National Guard for 15 years. “I’ve worked on everything but locomotives,” he says.
As a blacksmith with 30 years’ experience, he also gives hammer-in demonstrations at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, as well as at the Matthew Edel Blacksmith Shop, a state historic site within walking distance of his home in Haverhill, a town of about 200 people in rural Marshall County.
“I’ve always been a metal fabricator,” Bill says. “A group of blacksmiths started having hammer-ins there in 1985, and I joined them in 1988. They are part of the Upper Midwest Blacksmith Assn.”
A member of the Mid-Iowa Antique Power Assn., Bill regularly displays two 1930s-era International Harvester LB stationary gas engines at the association’s annual Mid-Iowa Antique Power Show (this year’s show is set for Aug. 3-5, just outside of Marshalltown).
Vested interest in Marshalltown
At his home in Haverhill, drawers, tubs, shelves and pegboards are filled with relics of the past. “I’ve always worked with tools,” he says. “I like the fact that each tool has a special usage and some tools may have more than one usage. But what really got me interested in collecting, 25 years ago, was when we learned my wife, Judy, is the great-granddaughter of John R. Morris, who came to Marshalltown in 1908 from Jewell, Kansas, to work for Marshalltown Drop Forge Co.”
Judy’s grandmother, Clara Morris Lowry, was Morris’ eldest daughter. After discovering that leaf on his wife’s family tree, Bill set out to learn (and collect) everything he could on the early industrialist. Along he way, he made another discovery: Morris was awarded two patents during his time in Marshalltown. One was for a wrench; the other was for a pipe wrench. “He became one of my favorite toolmakers,” Bill says.
Of all the items in Bill’s collection, the piece he treasures most is a 1911 Morris wrench, a multi-purpose tool. “It has a pair of pliers and an alligator wrench,” Bill says. “The other side has a monkey wrench, and there’s a middle for cleaning threads on bolts, and a pry bar.”
The Marshalltown legacy
Bill knows the back story on many of the pieces in his collection, and can point out the subtle differences between various tools. “I have about 1,000 wrenches,” he says. “I make the claim that I have the world’s largest collection of multi-wrenches: I have 155 of them. They were a little Chinese import wrench, and not good quality, but they’re cheap and easy to find.”
As a native of Marshall County, having resided in Haverhill for more than 30 years, Bill is very interested in the tools, parts and components once manufactured in the area.
“I like Marshalltown’s industrial history. It intrigues me,” he says. “It had the railroad coming through and the Lincoln Highway, too. You can’t go anywhere in the U.S. and not find something that was manufactured in Marshalltown.”
Early Marshalltown manufacturers include Hawkeye Wrench Co., Dunham-Bush, Williams Bros., Marshall Oil Co., Marshalltown Trowel Co., V-Ray and Tungsten Mfg. Co.
Richly colored and varying in design, pieces in his spark plug collection are small works of art. “I have V-Ray and Hel-Fi spark plugs,” Bill says. “One of my favorites is a tungsten heavy-duty blue-colored spark plug that most likely was used in cars and tractors around 1918-19.”
Combination cane/whip remains elusive
Bill’s collection is not limited to Marshalltown relics. He also has pieces produced by International Harvester, Bonney Forge tools and Buffum Tool Co. His one and only Buffum wrench draws a lot of attention. The company’s logo includes an ancient symbol that was adopted as a Nazi swastika during World War II. More than 5,000 years ago, early cultures recognized it as a symbol of good fortune and wellbeing. “Buffum used the symbol long before it was associated with Adolf Hitler,” Bill explains.
Which item in his collection is the rarest? “That would be a 1913 Cooper-made wrench made by C&E Mfg. of Marshalltown,” he says. “You can usually find the handle, but it’s rare to find it with all four jaws.” He displays the wrench in a shadow box along with a copy of its patent.
The piece he’d like to add to his collection – a combination walking cane and horsewhip – remains an elusive prize. “It was patented by Morris on March 20, 1906,” Bill says. He’s never seen a photo of the piece, and has never seen a vintage ad showing the piece. “My wife’s mother always said it was her desire to have it [for the collection] but we could never find it,” he says.
Building a strong network
To accumulate a collection like Bill’s, you have to cast a big net. Bill keeps an eye on eBay and regularly visits flea markets, swap meets and auctions. He’s not the only one looking. “There are a lot of Marshalltown memorabilia collectors,” he says, “and there are a lot of buyers at auctions.”
Bill doesn’t practice his hobby in isolation. He researches patent records at the Historical Society of Marshall County. He also connects with other collectors as a member of the Mid-Iowa Antique Power Association, Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. and the Missouri Valley Wrench Club.
“I meet other tool collectors through these groups and other sources for finding some of the rare tools,” he says. “These people let me know if they find something I’ve been looking for, and I do the same for them.” Bill will host the Missouri Valley Wrench Club’s fall meeting and auction, Oct. 19-20, at a Marshalltown hotel.
Bill doesn’t use any of his antique tools, but he does enjoy putting modern tools to work as he tinkers on his International engines and a Kohler electric power plant. It’s all part of his commitment to preserving the history of vintage equipment. “I like the feeling of saving history,” he says.
“We’re trying to teach our three grandkids the history,” says his wife, Judy. “Bill will leave some of the tools laying around our property, and the grandkids get excited when they find them, and ask him how they were used.” FC
For more information: Bill Roads, (641) 485-4557.
Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. She is the features writer for Times-Republican in Marshalltown, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at: email@example.com.
Portions of this article were previously published Dec. 10, 2017, by the Marshalltown, Iowa, Times-Republican.