For a farmer in the 1930s, necessity was the mother of invention, and a trip hammer was built from scrap parts from behind a blacksmith shop.
There are few people more resourceful than a farmer with a problem – especially if his farm is a long way from town, his bank account is a bit on the skimpy side and the country is in the middle of the Great Depression.
That man can coax a worn-out engine back to life, climb to the top of a windmill and persuade old gears to turn again, help deliver a calf that’s reluctant to face the world, and anything else that is required to sweat out a living. “You do what you have to do to get by!”
Morris Smith, a farmer near the small town of Maxdale in western Bell County, Texas, was that kind of person. In the late 1930s, he had a need for a tool to help him sharpen plowshares (also known as “sweeps”). For help, he turned to his good friend Charlie Holt, who ran a blacksmith shop in Killeen, Texas. The two of them put together a trip hammer using scrap parts from the pile behind the shop.
The trip hammer dates to ancient times in China and Europe. It is a machine sometimes found in a blacksmith shop. A heavy weight is raised with a lever and then the mechanism is “tripped” and the weight allowed to fall onto an anvil. This action is repeated over and over. The trip hammer can strike with considerably more power and precision than a handheld hammer.
After a plowshare is heated red-hot in a forge to make it malleable, it is taken to the trip hammer and a portion of the worn edge is hammered thin. When the metal cools, the plowshare is returned to the forge and the process repeated. After the entire length of the plowshare is hammered thin, a grinding wheel is used to even out and sharpen the edge. The plowshare might also be reheated in the forge and then plunged into a bucket of water or waste oil to harden the steel.
Morris had a knack for fixing things. As is often the case, less talented neighbors and relatives soon found out about that and turned up on his doorstep with things that needed to be repaired. The trip hammer was made to help Morris with his work. It was run off a line shaft powered by an electric engine, along with a post drill and a grinding wheel. Morris’ shop was in a tin building, so the sound of the trip hammer resonated throughout the building, causing it to vibrate.
Eventually, Morris stopped offering blacksmith services when they became more than he could handle in addition to the other work on his farm. At that time, the trip hammer was removed from his shop and left under a tree to deteriorate.
Morris’ son Dierre inherited his father’s talents and learned from him. Dierre went to work for the Texas State Highway Department and was based at the department’s warehouse at Fredericksburg in Gillespie County. He retrieved his dad’s trip hammer and he and co-worker Thomas Gant replaced parts that had been removed and restored it to working order. At that time, the trip hammer was powered with an electric engine scavenged from a discarded gas pump. Thomas used the trip hammer to sharpen blades on highway department mowers.
The trip hammer was used until the mid-1980s, when the department determined its continued use to be too dangerous and the liability too great. At that time, it was returned to Dierre. Dierre loaned the machine to the Hill Country Antique Tractor & Engine Club and it resided on the club’s grounds until 2017, when it was given to a local group, the Antique Power Buffs, and restored as an exhibit. FC
Glenn Thompson, professor emeritus from the Wisconsin University System, was born and raised on a farm in South Dakota. In addition to other pursuits at his home in Texas, Glenn rides herd over “an eclectic collection of dead and dying riding mowers and compact tractors, much to the chagrin of my wife, who would prefer that I have a stamp collection.” Contact him at 7542 North St. Hwy. 16, Fredericksburg, TX 78624; (830) 990-4521; firstname.lastname@example.org.