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

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.