Cut Out for Collecting Wrenches

An Ohio man revels in collecting and refurbishing cutout letter wrenches from the 1900s to the 1920s.

| July 2019

bentleys
Janie and Olan Bentley 

Olan Bentley of Washington Court House, Ohio, could be classified as a super collector. Antique farm equipment and related tools — especially cutout wrenches — are among his favorites.

“I liked the looks of them, so I started picking them up when I could,” he says. “But then it becomes an obsession. You’re always looking for the one you don’t have.”

Olan owns 65 cutout wrenches dating to the 1900s-1920s. What makes that variety stand out from run-of-the-mill wrenches is that the manufacturers’ names are cut through or around the metal, instead of merely being embossed or engraved. He says that many such wrenches produced in the early years of the last century came with early corn planters. 

For Olan, it all began in the 1980s, during the time he was actively collecting cast iron implement seats. But it is also an inherited interest. Both Olan’s father and grandfather were interested in antique farm equipment. “My grandfather was dealing in old, horse-drawn farm machinery back in the 1930s and ’40s,” he says.

He probably won’t find them all

While every collector has his or her own personal taste, Olan likes to refurbish the wrenches. He paints the bodies black and the lettering white, and mounts them on white pegboard, so they “pop” when viewed from a distance.

john-bull-wrench planet-jr-wrench

How does that impact a wrench’s value?

“If it’s a rare wrench, they’re going to buy it whether it’s painted or not,” he explains. “Some people frown on it. It’s just like the cast iron seats, where some people like to keep them the way they find them, all rusted, and others have them painted.”

Wrenches in his collection were manufactured primarily in the U.S. and Canada. Manufacturers represented include John Deere, Verity, Verity 3, Comet, OXO, Noxon, Hamilton, Casaday and W Plow Co. “I also have two of the three wrenches known from overseas,” Olan says. “One is a Hurtu Jr. and the other is a large John Bull. Both are very rare.” 

He estimates there may be only three or four cutout wrenches he doesn’t own — but he doubts he’ll ever find them all. He searches for his treasures on eBay, through members of clubs he belongs to (including the Missouri Valley Wrench Club), and at flea markets and engine shows.

Rare wrench linked to 1918 tractor

As with all collectibles, prices for cutout wrenches depend on the rarity of the piece. Some go for a few dollars; some for as much as $20,000. “Some have several variations in design and numbers, such as the Deere, of which I have seven variations,” he says. “Some are common; one Deere with hammers on it brings a few hundred dollars. Another name with many variations is the Planet Jr. (with the rare H-11, T63 and 312).” 

Olan said the granddaddy of them all is the coveted John Deere TR590. The wrench was included in the toolbox of the first John Deere tractor – the 1918 Joseph Dain-designed all-wheel drive. 

“Less than a dozen of these wrenches are known of,” he says. “Only two of these tractors are known to exist. The sky is the limit on the value of these John Deere wrenches.”

It’s a tough market for collectors. “Sometimes you don’t even know a wrench exists until you see it,” he said. “And most of this stuff has been gathered up. The values go up and down. The farmers are hurting in this economy, so if the farm community doesn’t have the extra money, the collectible value will be softer. Also, a lot of the old collectors have passed away, and the younger people don’t know the value of what stuff used to bring. Some are once-in-a-lifetime finds. When you see it, it’s the time to buy it. That’s what I’ve learned.”

zenith-wrench john-deere-wrench
The coveted John Deere TR590 wrench was included in the toolbox of the 1918 Joseph Dain-designed all-wheel drive tractor. 

The king of the corn toppers

A member of the Corn Items Collectors Assn. since the mid-1980s, Olan also collects seed corn license plate toppers. These small signs, which were attached to license plates, were popular premiums in the 1930s and ’40s.

Toppers were a way for seed corn producers to market their product. Names on the toppers hark back to producers like Best, Blacks, Blackhawk, Blaney’s, Carlson’s, Cargill, Clark’s, Cornelius, Corn Husker, Crows, DeKalb, Farmers, Federal, Frey, Funks G, Gries, Happalas, Hagies, Hulting, Iowealth, Earlbecks, Ohio Certified, Pfister, McAllisters, Pike, Pioneer, Reid Yellow Dent, Thompsons Tomahawk, Webster, Yagers and more.  

Olan’s collection took root in 1986. “A good collector friend sold me a McAllisters for $10,” he says. Prices since then have steadily increased, as the pieces have become increasingly scarce. “Toppers are hard to find these days, mainly because of their small size and the fact that most were produced in small numbers,” he says. “A couple produced for larger, national brands (such as DeKalb and Pfister) are still fairly common.”

signs
Corn toppers — small signs attached to license plates — are another collectible category for Olan. The toppers were originally made available as promotional pieces.

They may look the same, but they’re not

Olan says toppers made by smaller, regional companies sell for $200-$300 because they are scarcer. His collection includes pieces that appear, at first glance, to be duplicates, but they’re not.

“I have 10 variations of Pioneer, two types of Pfister and seven variations of Funks G,” he says. “I have 140 different toppers in my collection. Some collectors call me ‘The King of the Corn Toppers.’”

The original toppers were made of painted metal. “Beware of the repro toppers made with a heavy porcelain coating instead of painted metal,” Olan cautions. “As with many collectibles, when they start to bring high prices, someone will start producing fakes.” FC

seed-signs

 Antique sewing machine treadles are a natural fit for home seamstress

Janie Bentley’s collection was launched in self-defense. Married to Olan Bentley, an avid collector of almost any antique farm collectible, she did the only thing she could.

“When Olan started collecting, I needed something to collect also,” Janie says. “There was a time when all farm women had a treadle sewing machine, so I started looking for the different treadles (foot pedals on antique sewing machines) that were on the machines.

Janie’s collection includes 185 treadles displayed on an enclosed back porch at their home. She paints all the treadles black, highlighting lettering and designs with white paint. When she first began collecting, treadles could be had for $25-$50. These days, prices have jumped to $100 or more for the entire sewing machine.

“Sometimes you would find treadles that had already been taken off the machine, so sometimes we were buying the machines and sometimes just the treadles,” she says. “It’s kind of a challenge to see how many different ones there were.”

treadles 

No stranger to the sewing machine

Janie’s treadles are from the U.S., Canada and, in at least one case, the Caribbean. Some pieces date to the 1880s; some are modern-day. Some of the older treadles are shaped to resemble a pair of feet. Some carry no name; others carry once-familiar names like Singer, New Home, The Free, Sears & Roebuck, MW, Crown, Domestic and Davis.  

Janie started sewing when she was about 10 years old. One of her first projects was a dress of taffeta and lace for a bride doll. She took home economics in high school, inspired by her mother, who made the family’s clothing. Janie went on to make her own clothing, including — in 1960 — her wedding dress.

“I was still sewing lace flowers on the skirt at about noon of the day we got married,” she said with a laugh. “We got married about 2:30.”

— Sara Jordan-Heintz

treadletreadle

For more information: Contact Olan and Janie Bentley at (740) 335-0964; obentley40@yahoo.com

Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press and in Collectors Journal and Antique Trader. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at rose111@netins.net.



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