Tool Treasure Trove: 17th Annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale

Collectors swarm over vintage tools at one of the few tool collectors’ shows open to the public

| January 2010

  • Tools tagged at $5 a piece
    Tools tagged at $5 a piece at the 17th Annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale snagged close scrutiny.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • A sander patented in 1885
    A sander patented in 1885 from the Ron Jensen collection.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • A motorcycle tool with 'Vlchek Tool Co.' cast on one side and 'Motorcycle' on the other
    A motorcycle tool with “Vlchek Tool Co.” cast on one side and “Motorcycle” on the other. Ron Jensen estimated the 1920s-vintage tool’s value at $300.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Unidentified tool with 'Triple 'XXX' root beer' cast on one side
    This piece from Ron Jensen’s collection remained unidentified at the tool sale. “Triple ‘XXX’ root beer” is cast on one side.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • A wheat flail
    A wheat flail from the Ron Jensen collection.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Detail of the leather hinge on the wheat flail
    Detail of the leather hinge on the wheat flail.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • A cutter for workhorse harness straps
    A cutter for workhorse harness straps, from the collection of Bill Cox. Adjustable cutting knives on the tool finessed strap edges.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Possible tool for making lace
    Mark Johnson, Pendleton, Ind., believes this piece was used to make lace.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • An unknown item from the collection of Mark Johnson
    An unknown item from the collection of Mark Johnson.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Rolfe_A tongue-in-cheek tool display
    A tongue-in-cheek tool display.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • This tool seems designed for kitchen use
    Made in Italy, this piece seems designed for kitchen use. It was found in a $5 bin at the tool show.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Antique tools find a ready audience at shows and swap meets
    Antique tools find a ready audience at shows and swap meets.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Ivory-tipped plow plane
    Chris Berger’s ivory-tipped “plow” plane.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Tool used to cut grooves in barrel staves
    Dennie Cole, Bridgeview, Ill., says this tool was used to cut grooves in barrel staves. He tagged the piece at $55.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Another view of the tool used to cut grooves in barrel staves
    Another view of the tool used to cut grooves in barrel staves.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Blacksmith-made carpet stretcher predating 1900
    This blacksmith-made tool is a carpet stretcher predating 1900. It was displayed by George Kindl, Lisbon, Iowa.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Shoemaker's hammer
    Dennie Cole’s display included a shoemaker’s hammer cast with “Schols Arch-Supports” on the head.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • An axe head with a grub blade welded on the back
    David Minor, Batavia, Ill., showed an axe head with a grub blade welded on the back. “This was invented by ‘Big Ed’ Pulaski, who worked as a U.S. Forest Service ranger in Idaho,” he says. “He welded the first grub blade on an axe so they could dig and chop with the same tool to fight a big forest fire in Idaho in 1910. They still use these tools today in several agencies.”
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Plane designed to work on elaborate curves typical of those on a fine coach
    Owned by Clark Mountin, this plane is designed to work on elaborate curves typical of those on a fine coach. Made almost entirely of brass, the piece dates to the 1800s and is valued at $100-$150.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Table of tools at the annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale
    Antique tools find a ready audience at shows and swap meets.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Detail of the carpenter's level
    Detail of the carpenter's level.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Carpenter's level made by W.B. Melick
    A carpenter’s level made by W.B. Melick, St. Louis, Mo., from the collection of Clark Mountin, Winterset, Iowa. “I sold one just like this awhile back for $6,500,” he says.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Clapboard marker or gauge
    A clapboard marker or gauge used to mark clapboard siding for cutting. The piece is about 100 years old.
    Lyle R. Rolfe
  • Jim Hiatt inspects a cherry pitter
    Jim Hiatt, Villa Park, Ill., inspects a cherry pitter. This model holds several cherries, pitting two at a time. The pits fall through and the pitted fruit slides off the prongs into a container.
    Lyle R. Rolfe

  • Tools tagged at $5 a piece
  • A sander patented in 1885
  • A motorcycle tool with 'Vlchek Tool Co.' cast on one side and 'Motorcycle' on the other
  • Unidentified tool with 'Triple 'XXX' root beer' cast on one side
  • A wheat flail
  • Detail of the leather hinge on the wheat flail
  • A cutter for workhorse harness straps
  • Possible tool for making lace
  • An unknown item from the collection of Mark Johnson
  • Rolfe_A tongue-in-cheek tool display
  • This tool seems designed for kitchen use
  • Antique tools find a ready audience at shows and swap meets
  • Ivory-tipped plow plane
  • Tool used to cut grooves in barrel staves
  • Another view of the tool used to cut grooves in barrel staves
  • Blacksmith-made carpet stretcher predating 1900
  • Shoemaker's hammer
  • An axe head with a grub blade welded on the back
  • Plane designed to work on elaborate curves typical of those on a fine coach
  • Table of tools at the annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale
  • Detail of the carpenter's level
  • Carpenter's level made by W.B. Melick
  • Clapboard marker or gauge
  • Jim Hiatt inspects a cherry pitter

The vendors were almost as plentiful as the buyers at the 17th annual Midwest Antique Tool Sale last August at the restored 1840s Garfield Farm and Inn Museum near Wasco in northern Illinois.

Sponsored by the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. and the Early American Industries Assn., the event differs from most tool collector shows – it’s open to the public.

Dealers like the event: It gives them exposure to a different group of buyers and introduces new people to the hobby. And dealer/collectors still get a chance to do a bit of looking themselves. “Many of us spend more on things for our collections than we make on our sales,” says Bill Cox, Streator, Ill. “I bought a big work bench and some other things, so I didn’t make anything today. But I had a lot of fun visiting with friends.” His wife, De­nice, who collects rare buttonhole chisels, watches the table while he roams.

Collectors looking for value

At Ron Jensen’s table, there was a sander patented in 1885. “It’s unusual because of the gear system and the engineering involved in making it,” he says. He had hardly finished explaining how the device worked when a bystander traded him a handful of bills for the tool and walked off with it.

Ron, who grew up on a Wisconsin farm and now lives in Edgerton, Wis., began collecting tools 50 years ago at age 15, after attending an estate auction where he bought a large buffet and two buckets of tools. The starting bid on the buffet was $1,000, but rain put a damper on the auction. At day’s end, the auctioneer took Ron’s $25 bid for the buffet and a couple bucks for the wrenches.

Five decades later, Ron has amassed a collection his insurance agent estimates at 17 tons. “I ain’t going to count ’em,” he recalls the agent saying.

For 20 years, Ron has frequented garage sales in old, established neighborhoods, auctions, farm estate sales and flea markets within 150 miles of his home. He has a keen eye for bargains. “Many people don’t know what they’ve got or its real value,” he says. “It takes time to learn these things.”



And value is key. “Collectors today are looking more for investment grade tools,” Ron adds. “By investment, I’m talking about quality tools that are good investments.” He pointed to a $110 woodworking plane on a neighboring vendor’s table, noting, “They still make planes, but not like that.”

A couple of buyers correctly identified his wheat flail, commonly used in northern Wisconsin from the 1830s to the 1860s. Intact original leather hinges make the piece rare, Ron says. It dates to an era when harvest was back-breaking toil.



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