Donna Harris enjoys the ancient art of shingle making. She especially likes working with her father, Mason Harris, and friend Allen Young as they demonstrate how shingles were made with an 1850s shingle mill.
The trio hail from Peterborough, N.H., and spend many weekends each summer making shingles with the mill. Most of all, they look forward to Farm Days, held each year at the Muster Field Farm Museum in North Sutton, N.H.
‘Farm Days at Muster Field is one of my favorite events,’ Donna says with a smile.
Part of the reason that Farm Days is so enjoyable, Donna explains, is because the popular show is held at the end of August, when the searing heat of summer has nearly given way to early fall-like weather. Judging by the crowds at the show in 2003, Donna isn’t the only one who loves the vintage farm show..
Farm Days at the museum is devoted to the exhibition of old farm and homestead implements and demonstrations of their uses. Last year’s event, held Aug. 23 and 24, drew dozens of exhibitors, like Donna and her father, as well as hundreds of visitors to the historic 250-acre working farm museum in central New Hampshire.
Just millin’ around
The shingle mill was manufactured in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire by the J.B. Smith Co. of Sunapee, sometime in the 1850s. The mill consists of a 32-inch-diameter circular saw blade on a carriage with an indexing vice, which feeds the billet to the saw blade and adjusts its angle so the shingles are cut with the familiar taper.
The shingle mill is mounted on a trailer along with two additional power tools of the trade. One is an edger found in an Antrim, N.H., barn alongside the shingle mill, and the other is a circular cut-off saw.
The edger – which consists of a 40-inch-diameter iron wheel with five cutter blades attached – is used to smooth the edges of each shingle. The edger’s wheel is mounted to a steel shaft that turns on wooden pillow bearings. The 21-inch-diameter circular saw is used to cut large timbers into billets of suitable length for the mill.
All three tools were originally belt-driven off a line-shaft turned by a large water wheel or even a steam engine, but vintage gas engines now power the devices. ‘We’ve used a wood-fired Aultman & Taylor steam engine from the 1860s to power the mill, but now we use the Fairbanks-Morse,’ Donna explains. The Fairbanks-Morse engine is a 7 1/2-hp gasoline engine from the 1920s. The edger and cut-off saw are powered by a 1 1/2-hp Sears, Roebuck & Co. Economy engine (actually built by the Hercules Gas Engine Co.), and a 3-hp Fairbanks-Morse gas engine, respectively.
The shingle-making process is quite simple with these tools. Once a billet is positioned in the mill’s vice, the saw’s carriage drive is engaged, and a shingle is sliced from the billet. After the cut, as the carriage reverses, the star wheels on both the top and bottom of the vice are automatically indexed, but not at the same amount. That helps position the billet at a slight angle for the next cut. The process continues until there isn’t enough wood left for the vice to grip, and a new billet is inserted.
Even though the machines used to make modern wooden shingles have changed, Donna says, shingles are made pretty much the same way. The biggest difference between new and old shingle mills is that modern machines make more than one shingle at a time, Donna adds, and are much safer to operate than the 1850s version. To ensure safe operation at farm shows, Mason added a safety grille in front of the shingle mill’s large blade. ‘The mill is original except for the grille, but it’s still dangerous,’ Donna says.
Mason’s shingle mill wasn’t the only vintage mill displayed at Farm Days. Fred Nason demonstrated how a David Bradley stone burr mill grinds corn that he shelled with a small, hand-cranked box sheller. Fred powers the burr mill with a 1912 2-hp Reeves Pulley Co. stationary gas engine.
‘This is just part of my operation,’ Fred says about his corn grinding efforts. ‘I also plant and pick corn and put it in a mini-crib, and the meal gets used for cooking.’
Flat belts, gears and pumps
Corn wasn’t the only grain in the limelight at Farm Days. The museum staff wheeled out the farm’s Gray-Line small-grain barn thresher, manufactured by A.W. Gray & Sons Co. of Middletown Springs, Vt. The small, late-1800s stationary threshing machine could be powered by virtually any flat-belted power source. For the demonstration, power was carefully obtained from John Dupre’s 1948 Farmall Model M tractor that he brought from his home in Lunenburg, Mass.
‘It makes me kind of nervous attaching this much horsepower to the threshing machine,’ John declares. ‘If something gets jammed, it’ll tear it to pieces.’
Naturally, John was very attentive as his tractor powered the thresher, and the threshing crew was careful to feed the old machine slowly so it wasn’t overworked. Despite its age, the Gray-Line did a fine job of threshing several bushels of oats in front of an awestruck crowd.
More than gasoline-powered equipment was featured at Farm Days. Anne Fulbrook-Jones and her husband, Ed Jones, of Williamstown, Mass., displayed a fine collection of gear-driven kitchen implements. A nicely restored cherry stoner made by Scott Manufacturing, of Baltimore, stood out among several apple peelers, corers and slicers.
Sitting nearby was an unusual molasses or syrup pump with a threaded, tapered bung designed to screw into a wooden barrel. The syrup pump was used at old-time country stores to measure out a specific quantity of the sweet liquid into a customer’s container, Anne explains. The couple also displayed their hand-cranked grinders, a pencil sharpener and other unique, hand-powered implements.
‘Of all of the collectibles out there, hand-cranked, gear-driven kitchen implements fascinate me the most because they offer ingenious solutions to mundane tasks,’ Anne says.
Other farm curiosities abounded. Bob Butler brought fine examples from his hand pump collection. A water system contractor from Dartmouth, Mass., Bob has collected hand pumps for several years. His display at the show included gear pumps used to transfer oil or other viscous fluid, chain pumps, submersible pumps, suction/pitcher pumps and even pressure pumps.
‘Not all of the pumps are only hand operated,’ Bob says. ‘Many could also be connected to a windmill and later to a gas engine with a pump jack.’
Bob’s passion for pumps follows unusual and beautifully crafted models. ‘Pumps with a lot of brass really catch my eye,’ he adds. One of the most interesting pumps that Bob displayed was a barrel pump with a rack-and-pin-ion-driven agitator at the bottom. Bob speculates that the agitator indicated the pump was actually used to transfer fertilizer or similar materials.
Farm Days included many other demonstrations of vintage tools and techniques often forgotten in today’s modern world. For example, capable blacksmiths staffed the museum’s iron forge, while other volunteers hewed wooden beams with broad axes. Craft makers wove baskets, made brooms and caned chairs, while others handled oxen, worked sheep dogs and performed shape-note singing. Military re-enactors dressed in 18th-century uniforms fired muskets for the crowd.
If the demonstrations and displays weren’t enough to thrill visitors, the museum’s beautiful hilltop setting most certainly instilled a deeper appreciation of New England’s farming heritage.
– For more information about Muster Field Farm Museum and Farm Days, contact them at (603) 927-4276; or on the Web at www.musterfteldfarm.org
Oscar ‘Hank’ Will III is an old-iron collector and restorer who retired from fanning in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Whittier, Calif., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 13952 Summit Drive, Whittier, CA 90602; or call (562) 696-4024; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Working flax the old way
Visitors at Muster Field Farm Museum Farm Days could learn about homespun textile making through spinning, weaving and quilting demonstrations. Yet, perhaps the most interesting craft was the art of making flax spun from the flax plant itself. Museum volunteers showed visitors how to ‘brake’ the retted flax stalks, as well as the subsequent ‘scutching’ and ‘hackling’ of the plant material to yield the best fibers for spinning. New England farmers grew flax – from the genus Linum from which we get the word linen -as a source for fiber, seed and oil, just as their ancestors did in Europe. Linen cloth is woven from the spun fibers.
Once the flax plants are harvested by uprooting, they are wetted and allowed to ‘rot’ for several days in running water, standing water or simply by leaving bundles of stalks exposed to daily dew. This process -known as retting – breaks down the pectin in the coating of the stalk and loosens the cellulose fibers within.
Volunteers took dew-retted flax stems and crushed the outer coating using an ancient tool called a brake. The coarse material was removed by scraping the stems across the brake’s wooden blade in a process called scutching. Then cellulose flax fibers were removed by drawing the stems through a series of hackles – combs made of iron spikes driven through a piece of wood – in a process called hackling. The process is time-consuming and labor-intensive, but the golden fibers obtained at the end were obviously worth the effort for farmers. The fuzzy, short fibers left in the hackle are collectively called ‘tow.’ Thus, a number of hair metaphors survive in the language from those days of old, including ‘flaxen haired’ and ‘tow headed.’
Muster Field Farm Museum
Muster Field Farm Museum exists as the result of a generous gift to New Hampshire from the late Robert Bristol, who operated a dairy and chicken farm at the site until the mid-1960s. Bob’s family purchased the farm in 1941 from descendents of Matthew Harvey, who founded the homestead in 1 787. The original Harvey house is open for tours along with other buildings, including the Hardy-Pillsbury barn, which was moved to the museum from Sutton, N.H., in 1988. Throughout the year, museum operations include maple sugar making, vegetable production, cutting cordwood and making other forest products, putting up hay, growing heirloom flowers and herbs, as well as raising cattle, hogs and chickens.