Did you ever look at a piece of woven hog fencing and wonder how it was made? How about wire-bound, wood-slat snow fence or wire-bound picket fence? Did you ever consider how the barbs get installed and twisted into barbed wire? Harold Eddy and son Alan, both of Slater, Mo., discovered answers to those questions when they found an odd-looking chain-driven device nearly a dozen years ago.
‘We found our first fence-making machine in Mt. Pleasant (Iowa) at the swap meet,’ Harold says with a smile. ‘It was in fair condition, but complete enough that I could recognize it for what it was.’ Harold had seen a drawing of a similar device while doing patent research on one of his hundreds of other primitive farm tools.
‘From my research, I knew that they were rare,’ Harold says while turning the device’s crank and neatly twisting a wooden picket between three pairs of wires. ‘You can use this tool to make barbed wire or smooth, twisted wire fencing, too.’ As it turns out, that first fence-making machine needed very little work to get it operating. According to Alan, the most difficult part of the process was finding the correct chain, which is poured from molten material, not stamped.
Today, most fencing materials are purchased by the roll at the local farm supply store, but that was not the case in the late 1800s, when steel wire first became an attractive alternative to wood fence. According to Harold, fence-making machines were sold for only a brief period before demand for wire fencing became great enough that manufacturers took note. ‘The portable fence-making machines were used on the farm during the last 25 years or so of the 1800s,’ Harold says. ‘When the stuff could be bought readymade, the machines were abandoned.’ For Harold, it is exactly that quirky rarity that makes fence-making machines an attractive collectible.
It takes diligence and a great deal of patience to collect something so unusual, though, and it helps to have a keen eye. ‘Right away I wanted to find other fence machines, but I didn’t really know where to look,’ Harold explains with a chuckle. ‘So I just dug through every pile of junk I found at auctions, swap meets and flea markets, and eventually got lucky.’ Harold’s luck, and desire to share his knowledge, ensures that these wire-weaving mechanical wonders will not be forgotten.
By the time Harold found his second and third fence-making machines, he had made the conscious decision to build a diverse fence tool collection, including wire stretchers, post-hole diggers, fencing pliers and related devices. ‘I thought it would be fun to collect the range of early fencing tools,’ Harold says, admitting he also thought such a collection would make an interesting and informative display at shows. ‘I like to exhibit something unusual so we can all learn something.’
When Harold learned of a five-day auction liquidating a private museum near Rocheport, Mo., he had no idea he would come home with a pair of fence-making machines. At the very least, he figured he would find a few interesting fence-stretching tools, and that’s what happened. Then he saw a rusty heap of metal. ‘There was this pile of junk that was first offered for choice,’ Harold explains. ‘I saw what I thought was the remains of a woven-wire machine in the pile, and I wanted it.’ After Harold won the fence machine’s remains, the auctioneer put the rest of the pile on the block as a unit. On a hunch, Harold bought the pile and discovered another wire-twisting machine buried within.
The junk pile prize that initially caught Harold’s eye was a Kitselman Duplex Automatic Woven Wire Fence Machine. This ingenious device was designed to twist stay wires onto a number of longitudinal fence wires to produce a woven, wire-like fabric that could physically contain or exclude smaller animals with ease. According to patent papers filed on Aug. 28, 1898, this machine was actually an improvement on Alva Kitselman’s original design that featured a new handle, wire gripper and propulsion mechanism. The machine was intended to install several stay wires simultaneously onto an existing wire fence and to weave wire netting ? in the field.
‘The Kitselman was completely frozen and the bottom was rusted off,’ Alan recalls. ‘I worked on it for nearly five years before we could turn the crank.’ Initially, he sprayed the piece with penetrating fluid and periodically tapped at it with a hammer in an attempt to loosen rusted fasteners. ‘I didn’t want to break anything,’ he adds, ‘but I did eventually apply a little heat, too.’ Eventually, he got it apart and repaired the rusted-off frame, made a bobbin and, after a professional brazing job failed, carefully welded one of the gears. Alan’s next challenge was to put the device back together, relying on little more than memory and lots of patience. ‘It took me a while to get it right,’ he says. ‘But when it comes to figuring stuff out, I love the challenge.’
Once the Eddy men had completed the Kitselman’s repair, they were eager to display the piece at local shows. It was just such a display that connected them with their fourth fence-making ma-chine. ‘I had the Kitselman at a show, and a man walked up to me and said he had a tool like that hanging on the corn crib wall,’ Harold explains. ‘He invited me out to look, and I ended up buying it.’
What Harold bought that day was, according to patent papers, a Phillips Stay-wire Fastener for wire fences. This machine, like the Kitselman, is designed to attach vertical (or diagonal) stay wires to an existing wire fence. However, unlike the Kitselman, the Phillips machine can only attach a single stay to a single longitudinal wire at a time. It was fairly complete and in relatively good condition when Harold obtained it.
‘The (Phillips) machine only took around a year to get working again,’ Alan says. ‘I had to replace the wood components and make some guides for it.’ The first time Alan assembled the machine, he had parts left over. And even though he had handled every piece of the device, he had never seen its name. ‘One day I was looking at it in the shop, and the light was just right and I found Phillips on it,’ Alan says. Armed with that information, he tracked down the patent, and was able to determine where the ‘extra’ pieces fit from the drawings.
Fence making school
The fence-making machines immediately generated so much interest at shows that it was difficult for either Harold or Alan to break away from their exhibit long enough to grab a sandwich, much less see the rest of the show. ‘It got to the point that from the moment we set up to the end of the day, we had a line of interested folks,’ Harold explains. ‘So we came up with a plan.’
The initial plan involved building several frames that approximated a short stretch of multi-strand, smooth wire fence. Each frame, dedicated to a different fencing machine, is designed to facilitate the production of that machine’s type of fence. For example, the Eddys have one wire-twisting machine on a frame dedicated to barbed wire production and another to picket fence production. Likewise, the Phillips and Kitselman units are on frames with several longitudinal wires to demonstrate how the machines are used to attach stay wires to an existing fence. ‘It is much easier to show folks how the machines work,’ says Alan, ‘than try to describe it to them.’
The frames quickly became cumbersome to move around and set up, so the Eddys mounted two of them on the sides of a trailer, leaving room between for the rest of their collection. ‘Beginning in 2004 we could pull the exhibit out of the shed, tow it to the show, and within minutes be set up and running,’ Harold says. The rolling exhibit offered show-goers the opportunity to turn the crank on the fence-making machines, which, along with signs, made it relatively easy for either Alan or Harold to tend the display alone.
Although the Eddys initially formed and installed barbs for the barbed wire demonstration by hand, it wasn’t really very satisfying. ‘At the beginning, we had a difficult time hand-twisting barbs onto the wires,’ Harold explains as he demonstrates his prized pair of barb-installing pliers. ‘It took four years of careful searching before I found the right tool.’ Harold’s quest for barb-installing pliers even took him to a barbed wire collectors’ convention in Fort Scott, Kan. There, he learned that such pliers had existed, but he was wasting his time looking for something so rare.
‘I was a little disappointed, but I kept looking at every swap meet and show I could get to,’ Harold says. Just last year, while looking through tools on a swap meet vendor’s table, Harold spied a pair. ‘The guy was using this tool to keep a stack of papers from blowing away,’ Harold explains. ‘I asked to see it and was pretty excited when it turned out to be the real thing.’ What Harold had discovered (according to patent papers he found later) was a pair of Dobbs & Booth Wire Barb Pincers. This tool is designed to tightly install barbs on a single No. 9 smooth wire, but it works perfectly on smaller wires when the barb is held in place by twisting a pair of longitudinal wires.
‘Now we can easily demonstrate how several different kinds of wire fencing were made,’ Harold says. ‘But we have plans for another setup.’ Harold and Alan recently found a trailer that they can permanently dedicate to their fence-making display. When completed, it will allow them to demonstrate all of their fencing machines, the art of barb cutting and forming, and they will even have room to haul a few new treasures home should they find any. FC
? For more information:
Always on the lookout for fence-making machines, barb-forming pliers, Eddy Co. plows, plows with intact wooden moldboard, and other primitive farm implements, Harold Eddy can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
? Oscar ‘Hank’ Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. e-mail: email@example.com
Passion for Primitives
Harold Eddy grew up helping his grandfather and father on the farm. Among his first jobs: hauling water to threshing crews using a homemade, horse-drawn rock boat. Later he graduated to harrowing and eventually to planting and cultivating ? initially with horses, and later with tractors. By the time he was in high school, Harold had his first truck, which he earned money with by hauling livestock to St. Louis for regional farmers. He later farmed on his own with modern equipment, but Harold never forgot his early experiences. The tools Harold used as a youngster are now central to his collecting focus, but it is the tools that he’d only heard of ? and some he’d never even known of ? that truly capture his fancy.
Harold’s collecting passion includes horse-drawn implements such as wood-frame spike harrows, walk-behind seeders or drills that run on wooden axles supported by leather bearings, and other primitive farming tools ? many that were homestead-built. Harold’s collection of horse-drawn plows includes a Woods-Patent cast iron plowshare; scores of wood-beam walking plows in left-hand, right-hand, hillside, breaking, brush, root and two-way configurations; and many models of single- and 2-bottom sulky plows. Harold’s award-winning corn tool collection includes a homestead-built, horse-drawn, sled-type cutter, a Mc-Cormick-Deering 2-row cutter, corn binders, stalk choppers, shocking horses, and many ancient bundle- and shock-tiers crafted by early settlers who farmed the rich bottoms of the Missouri River around Slater, Mo.
Harold isn’t ever sure where his passion for the old and unusual will lead him next, but one thing is certain. When he embarks on a new collecting direction, he is diligent about learning everything there is to know about that category of machine or tool. Once educated, he shares what he knows freely ? and when he shares his own knowledge, he says, that’s when his learning really begins.