Imagine a time when there was no hardware store or farm supply or big-box store just minutes from the farm. Imagine an era when times were so hard that purchase of a commercially produced tool — even a simple one — was out of the question. That all but unimaginable world sprung to life at the fall meeting of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Assn. in Davenport, Iowa, in September 2012 when the theme of “Craftsman Made and Hand-Forged Tools” was celebrated in elaborate and varied displays.
“It’s a different generation today,” admits Jim Moffet, an exhibitor at the show and long-time M-WTCA member from Modesto, Ill. “Today things are thrown away and easily replaced. But when you had no money to begin with, you knew you had to find a way to use what you had, or convert it to a new use.”
Titled “Need It, Want It, Made It,” the display created by Jim and his wife, Phyllis, spoke eloquently to the theme (and was named Best of Show in Theme and People’s Choice). A wide selection of obscure, homemade tools spoke to a simple resourcefulness: handmade nuts and bolts, a homemade corn sheller, even a home-grown prosthetic arm topped off with a fully functional hammer at the wrist.
The collection, built by Jim and Phyllis over a lifetime, includes several unusual hand-built pieces. A rein holder would have been driven into a log on the top of a load of logs being hauled to a river. A double-claw hammer was an economical homemade alternative to an expensive manufactured model. A cunning little snow knocker (used to clear hooves of accumulated snow) kept horses on the go in foul weather. Even a simple hand-held corn sheller was eminently useful. “It was copied from a T-handle sheller,” Jim muses. “The man that built it didn’t have 50 cents to buy a sheller, so he said ‘I can make one of those’ and he did.”
The wonder is that the relics survived the passage of time. “We just have to be delighted that somebody saved these,” Jim says. “Somebody had memories of using an old tool or thought he might need it down the road.”
John Holmes, Hudson, Iowa, collects very old rope-making machines and displayed several at the Davenport meet. It’s a hobby he traces to boyhood. “When I was 6 or 7, I’d get a chunk of new rope, 8 or 10 feet long, for my birthday,” he recalls. “I was a farm boy; I used rope to lead horses or calves.” Rope makers came later. “I was 25 before I ever saw a rope machine,” he says. “I’d have gone crazy if I’d seen one of those when I was a kid; Dad’s twine box would have been empty!”
Manufactured rope makers were readily available by the 1900s; earlier devices were handmade. John’s collection includes one made of wood, complete with square nails and mortised joints. A piece of antler is put to work as a twisting handle. “A man told me this piece could have been made in the late 1700s,” he says.
A student of the past, John describes the process of making rope with nothing more than a pair of sticks used as anchors and some kind of fiber or vine. “My dad taught me how to braid in the end to make a loop,” he recalls. “He grew up making rope halters for his family’s purebred shorthorns. Every time they sold a bull, they put a halter on it.”
The Arcade rope machine made in Freeport, Ill., was said to be easy to operate, convenient and economical. “The same size of twine rope as made on an Arcade rope machine proves to be stronger than factory rope and is only half as heavy to handle,” a company advertisement noted. “This is true, because only the longest and best fiber can be used in making the small binder twine, while in factory rope, short, brashy fiber is used and treated with chemicals to glaze and stiffen it. This doubles the weight and triples the price. An 8-foot rope is easily made in three minutes on an Arcade rope machine.”
James Goodson, Kerrville, Texas, does not typically collect farm tools. But he couldn’t resist a handmade potato fork, even if it didn’t fit in with his collection of European tools dating to the 17th century. The fork, which he believes to have been made in 18th century Sweden, was a popular display at the show. The piece appears to be made of birch, considered a resilient wood, and iron. The fork’s handle has an interesting open construction and a unique curve at one end. “I think the opening gives it a bit more balance or torque,” James says. “And the curve at the end creates a really good finger grip.
“The very heavy iron tines of the fork were early hand forgings, suggesting use around rocky environs,” he says. “One of the tines was broken and a new tip was forged back on.” Prominent forging marks and details make the somewhat roughly shaped ironwork a highly attractive feature for the collector. Burn marks are likely the result of the hot forks being reattached after a repair.
The tines’ mounting strap was secured with a through bolt, a yoke and three rosehead nails, one of which remains intact. A rosehead nail — a very early form of nail construction — is formed by three or four well-placed hammer strokes on a heated nailhead, James explains, giving it a bit of an angular appearance and forming a very strong head. The fork’s through bolt was crudely forged with a head that was formed into a disc much like a combination head and washer but totally flat on the top so as not to pull through under heavy pressure.
“There is very little you can build without a hole,” notes Vaughn Simmons, Harrisonburg, Va., who had a display at the show. With something like 400 antique wooden braces in his collection, Vaughn is well-equipped for any construction project. Coaxed into collecting by friends, he first concentrated on metal braces; later he made the leap to wooden relics. Nearly all were craftsman-made.
“The majority were made in the U.S.,” he says, “but the construction reflected what the craftsman or his parents had seen and used in the old country.” Braces were used on the farm to build barns and sheds using mortise and tenon joints. But wood braces were vulnerable. “If you put a lot of torque on a wood brace,” Vaughn says, “it will break.” By the end of the 1800s, wood braces had largely disappeared from the pages of tool catalogs, replaced by manufactured metal braces.
With them faded a singular era of craftsmanship. Some of Vaughn’s braces were built by users and some by professional toolmakers. All vary in design and degree of elegance. “But every one has chamfers, and they’ve all been shaped and made symmetrical,” he notes. “The craftsman did his best to make it look nice.”
A Dutch brace in Vaughn’s collection is a classic example of that kind of workmanship. Its hand-carved chuck screw is perfectly pitched. “You think of what that man went through to do that,” he muses. “Think of the hours in front of the fireplace carving those threads. And the body and the chuck of that piece are made from one piece of wood.”
Emery Goad, Wichita, Kan., is not one to get sentimental about the tools he collects. Titled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” his display at the Davenport meet was an intriguing collection running the gamut from A to zed and soup to nuts. As a collector, his mission statement is clearly defined. “I never wanted to have two of the same thing,” he says, “and I would buy anything if I didn’t know what it was or if it had personality.”
Which explains how he came to have a nearly yard-long screwdriver fashioned from what appears to be a very old bayonet. A pair of homemade scissors also meets the personality criteria: Homemade scissors would be unusual in any case, but these have the added genius of self-sharpening blades. “They are unequaled today,” Emery marvels.
Also unequaled: Hand filing done as part of the adjustment mechanism on a wrench Emery displayed. “You could spend a week filing on that and not finish it,” he marvels. “It’s unbelievable.” FC
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Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.