All special places need a unique name, and Francis’s tool shed is no exception as reflected in this sign he made for the building.
Francis Fox has never been one to throw anything away for as long as I can remember. Growing up as the youngest in a family of six during the Great Depression taught him a simple lesson: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. I’ve heard that saying many times, and believe me, he lives by that rule to this day. Maybe that explains his fondness for useful and unique wrenches, rasps and files.
How’d an antique tool collection like his get started? Well, the antique bug bit Dad in the 1960s and 1970s when he was middle aged. It was the first time in his life that he could comfortably support our family and also buy things for himself that weren’t just bread and butter or a roof over our heads. Raised on a farm, Dad always used a variety of tools, so he naturally began to collect them. ‘Tools were fairly inexpensive to buy when I started collecting,’ the South Wayne, Wis., tool collector recalls. ‘Now, all the baby boomers are collecting them, and they sell for a good price.’
Soon, all our farm buildings were crammed full of thousands of antiques and artifacts. Dad maintained a 260-acre dairy farm that paid the bills, but spent the rest of his time collecting tools. Dad had few bad habits – he didn’t smoke, gamble or drink – so he had many hours to dedicate to the collection. Dad dreamed of opening a museum for all of his antique collectibles, so my parents opened Fox’s Pioneer Museum to the public in the summer of 1974. By the late 1970s, the museum had grown to 11 buildings, including a one-room school house, pioneer log home, general store, automotive garage, farm implement shed and a 76-foot-long covered bridge that he built to honor America’s bicentennial anniversary, which later housed Dad’s tool collection. During its run, the museum saw visitors from 37 states and seven foreign countries.
‘I’m quite eccentric, so I just kept adding to it until I had a large-enough display in 1974 to open a museum,’ Francis remembers. Dad loved to guide people through his museum. He had an uncanny ability to remember where and how he acquired each item, and he often recalled an entertaining story to accompany each piece. Dad’s life during the Great Depression taught him to utilize and save everything he owned because his family didn’t own much, and his family’s home had no electricity or plumbing. Those hard times taught him to ‘recycle’ in the most literal sense, and he applies that wisdom to collecting.
‘I love to tell younger people what life was like in the old days,’ Francis says. ‘Everyone now wants to throw everything away, but I want to show people what old things were used for before they’re all gone and encourage people not to throw this old stuff away.’
One museum visitor, Willard Uting, who bought and sold old tools across the South and East Coast, kept many rasps and files he found along the way. Willard once showed his tool collection to Dad and told him, ‘If you are going to collect antiques, you would enjoy collecting the tools that made them.’ So began the hunt for rasps and files. By 1980, the collection surpassed 200. Shortly after, Mr. Uting sold Francis his personal collection, and the count ballooned to about 500.
All good things come to an end, and Fox’s Pioneer Museum shut its doors due to state safety laws, the high cost of liability insurance and complications with my parents’ health. We held a huge two-day auction in September 1991, where most everything was auctioned off except the tools. Those were nearest and dearest to Dad’s heart, and he was determined to keep them close.
Mom and Dad then retired to a small farm with several old farm buildings, which now house and display Dad’s collection of wrenches, axes, hammers, planes and just about any old tool imaginable. In 2000, Dad constructed one more building. Appropriately named ‘Franny’s Wonder Shed,’ the whole concrete-block structure is built around a tree and decorated with pieces of broken glass, crockery and trinkets. He wanted the shed to be special, and it certainly is. The colorful, little building showcases more than 535 rasps and files, and a 500-plus wrench collection that includes many hard-to-find specimens, such as cutout wrenches. ‘Franny’s’ isn’t open to the public like the old museum, but Dad occasionally invites the curious to tour the shed when the mood strikes him.
Dad isn’t too particular about each tool’s history. He says he collects them because he’s just as interested in learning from and using the old items as he is in teaching others about the tools. Now that he’s amassed such an impressive collection, people consider him a tool expert. That’s not really the case, Dad says. He just doesn’t want to see tools disappear like other important pieces of our throw-away society.
‘Basically, I used to go to other people for information, but now they come to me,’ he admits. ‘I don’t find collecting all this stuff very hard, actually. I’m very nostalgic and hope that others find an interest in it too. If I get it through to young people to save this kind of stuff, I feel like I’ve accomplished my goal.’
– John Fox lives on his family farm in South Wayne, Wis., with his wife, Janet, and their three children, where they raise beef cattle and operate a bakery.