Mark Gilles fell in love with old cast iron wrenches when he was 14 years old. "My grandpa had an old Farmall tractor, and there were some of those old wrenches hanging on a wall in a shed," he recalls. "There was an old monkey wrench with a wooden handle, a crescent wrench and others, and one day he gave them to me. That was when I started collecting."
But Mark, who lives in Monticello, Minn., liked the old wrenches even before that. "They fascinated me, the different sizes and shapes, old cast iron ones or pressed iron ones," he says. "They were just interesting to look at."
So he began to buy them. "When I was young. I used to go to flea markets and there would be wrenches laying around that you could buy for a dime or a quarter each. I put them in cream cans, until one day I realized I had a few cream cans full, and I started cleaning them and hanging them up. That's how it all started."
Today, Mark's collection consists of thousands of wrenches attached to peg board and displayed in a 40-by-100-foot pole shed. "I take 2-by-4-foot boards and fasten them to the wall, and now I have 80 of them filled with wrenches, and there's thousands more wrenches on the floor," says the 45-year-old construction truck driver. "When I retire, I'm going to hang them all up, although I'll need a bigger building."
A full gamut of manufacturers is represented in his collection, but it leans toward green. "John Deere and International bought out a lot of different companies," he explains, "so I consider the tools and wrenches and things from those companies as part of the larger company." Plano Harvesting Co., for instance, was bought out by International Harvester, and Syracuse Chilled Plow Co. was bought out by John Deere. The Syracuse wrenches (see the Image Gallery for a photo) are among his favorites. "They're kind of different, with two or three open ends," he says. "They're kind of cute."
His collection includes wrenches made for a variety of equipment, including buggies and horse-drawn machinery. Some don't even look like wrenches. The one used to adjust the pitch of a John Deere disc plow, for instance, resembles a double-sided horn more than it does a traditional wrench. A threaded rod went through the center to turn the wrench. Another odd-looking item is a crank used to roll the canvas on a corn binder, and raise the wheels so the machine could be transported.
Collectible wrenches sometimes have specific regional ties. "The southern part of the country had cotton pickers and machinery with different applications, and not a lot of them were made," Mark says, "so you just can't find them up here." Other wrenches are rare because they were manufactured in very small numbers.
A particularly rare piece in Mark's collection is the 375 Dain wrench from a Marseilles corn sheller. "Only one other collector has that one," he says. Flawed construction may be the key to the piece's rarity. "Most of these early wrenches were made of malleable iron, like cast iron, and came with the machinery," Mark explains. "I don't know if the Dain wrenches were weak, or if people tried too hard with them, but most of them seem to have an ear broken off." Later pressed-steel wrenches were stronger and much less expensive to produce.
Weighing 80 pounds and measuring 7 feet long, Mark's biggest wrenches were made for working on 6-inch oil field pipe. "It almost takes two guys to operate them," he says. His largest John Deere wrench is the TR 590, a cutout wrench for the Dain tractor, an experimental model built by Deere & Co. in about 1913. "It's 14 inches long, and probably the most-sought-after wrench of all, with only six known to exist," he says. Most of them have been found in South Dakota, where the Dain tractor was most commonly used.
Mark's oldest wrench is probably the Gilpin wrench, an accompaniment to the Gilpin sulky plow dating to the 1870s. The plow was named for Gilpin Moore, superintendent of John Deere's early iron works. Mark also has a Gilpin toolbox from the same era, as well as a Gilpin footrest.
A national system for determining wrench rarity has been developed by collectors Wayne Dils and Gilbert Irps, who produce John Deere and International Harvester lists, respectively. Their system is based on what any 15 collectors might have in their collections. If, for instance, all 15 collectors have a given piece, the wrench is considered to be common. If just one of the 15 collectors has the piece, the wrench is considered to be uncommon.
For example, a John Deere Van Brunt grain drill implement was commonly used on farms, so wrenches for that machine are common. Generally, 15 out of 15 wrench collectors would have that piece. On the other hand, only two collectors would have Mark's 375 Dain/Marseilles corn sheller wrench, because only two of those are known to exist.
Lists for wrenches produced by other manufacturers also exist, helping collectors determine rarity and possible value.
But collectors don't need lists to know that wrenches and related collectibles (like corn planter plates and seeder ends) are getting harder to find. "I used to find a lot of wrenches at the Monticello (Minn.) flea market, where I got my start," Mark says. "When I go there now, I'm lucky to find one wrench every two months." And prices are rising. "A pail of common wrenches at an auction goes for $20-30 now," he says. "And most of the time, the pail is filled with run-of-the-mill John Deere and IHC wrenches."
Prices at the top end of the category are steep. Mark says it's not unusual to find pieces at wrench meets selling for as much as $1,000. "The most expensive one (a TR 590 for a Dain tractor) runs about $10,000," he says.
Mark's wrench collection has spawned other collections. He also collects machinery components - toolboxes and drill ends - bearing company names. "John Deere built a lot of mowers with the toolbox cast right in the frame," he says. "The lid that was used to cover the toolbox had a flat cover, and those lids are hard to find." Deere & Mansur end lids in his collection also fit into the hard-to-find category, as do seeder attachments from Van Brunt grain drills.
Cast iron and tin toolboxes from sulky plows and cultivators are another part of his collection. Cast iron boxes typically came from plows, he explains; the tin boxes (with the manufacturer's name cut out on the box's side) from cultivators. Both are rare finds.
Other subcategories in his collection include tractor steering wheels and a trench guide. "When they came out with the electric start, something was still needed to start the tractor if the battery went dead," he says. "So they put an adaptor bolt on the flywheel, and the tractor steering wheel would fit over it, so the farmer could start the tractor."
The trench guide, made for John Deere equipment, is more obscure. In fact, Mark's never seen one on a piece of equipment. "It was used mostly in Nebraska, where they dug irrigation trenches," he says. "The one I have is made out of cast iron, has the deer on it and is really unique."
He is a determined collector: Mark's been known to buy an entire piece of equipment to get the components he wants.
Mark keeps track of the thousands of wrenches and related collectibles in his collection in two ways: by memory and through pictures he's taken and put in albums. "I have all my John Deere and IHC wrenches written down, along with pictures of many of them," he says, "so when I go to a wrench meet or an auction, even though I pretty much know what I've got, I can check. I've taken notes on what I have, too."
The entries are organized by company - all the John Deere pieces are in one section, for example - and then by subcategories of companies allied with John Deere - Van Brunt, Mansur & Tebbetts, Deere & Mansur, Syracuse Chilled Plow Co. - so he can easily determine whether he has a certain wrench.
Solid recordkeeping protects him from buying duplicates … except when he wants to. If he finds good duplicate wrenches, Mark snaps them up to resell or swap. "Sometimes you can trade a few wrenches for one good one," he says. And it just makes sense to pick up any 3-inch wrench, he says, even if it's a duplicate, because wrenches in that category are particularly rare.
In addition to searching for new additions to his collection, Mark attends swap meets to talk to other collectors and learn about vintage machinery. "I like to learn the story behind it all, I guess," he says. For him, and for those who view his collection at his home or at shows, wrenches are a portal to the world of antique farm equipment.
"Nowadays you can go to NAPA and find one wrench that fits everything," he says. "But in the old days, there was a wrench for every application. Every machine out there was different, so each one needed a different wrench. People just don't realize how many wrenches were produced decades ago."
Mark's collection, while immense, is far from the biggest. "I always tell people there are many other collectors who have a lot more than I have," he says. "But it's not about the numbers. Collecting wrenches is a hobby I really enjoy." FC
For more information:
- The History of Old Time Farm Implement Companies and the Wrenches They Issued, Volumes I and II, written and published by P.T. Rathbone; R-Lucky Star Ranch, Route 1, Box 734, Marsing, ID 83639; (208) 896-4478; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- IHC Tool List, Gil Irps, 3156 Old Waldron Road, Kankakee, IL 60901; (815) 937-9698.
- John Deere and Merged Companies Wrenches and Tools, Wayne Dills, 584 Courtland Dill Road, Harrington, DE 19952; (302) 284-4004; email: email@example.com
- Information on collectible wrenches: www.wrenchingnews.com
- Missouri Valley Wrench Club, c/o Stan Schulz, editor, club newsletter, 659 E. 9th, York, NE 68467; www.mvwc.org
- Mid-West Tool Collectors Association (M-WTCA), P.O. Box 355, Humboldt, IA 50548-0355; www.mwtca.org
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; email: firstname.lastname@example.org