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.
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.”
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.”
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
For more information: Contact Olan and Janie Bentley at (740) 335-0964; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.