Time for tools

HUMBOLDT – The theme of the talk was “Tools that make life easier,” but one point George Wanamaker made in his presentation was how “easier” has changed over the years.

“I’m a gardener, kind of by trade now, and I would never do it if I had to use these types of tools,” Wanamaker joked with his audience. “This stuff would kill you before you got done.”

Wanamaker was showing a reciprocating hedge trimmer that’s pumped back and forth by hand. Before that, he displayed a larger, two-person hedge trimmer that looked slightly less back-breaking, since it at least had a hand crank.

All these tools were from Wanamaker’s personal collection, on display at the Midwest Tool Collectors’ Association meeting Sunday morning. Wanamaker, of Macombe, Ill., is president of the association, which has members in 48 states and six countries.

Between 70 and 80 people showed up for the weekend meet, said association secretary LeRoy Witzel, of Humboldt.

“We had people here from all the surrounding states,” he said.

Members could buy and sell tools, attend a tool auction, and view a number of different displays put on by members.

Wanamaker’s tour through the history of garden and lawn work included a set of sheet metal hand tools from the Great Depression and a trimming lawn mower from 1915. He showed a heavy metal machine which would automatically dig holes and plant seeds in a garden, and another that would help cut and bundle asparagus.

He said an interest in the past is what brings people to the group.

“A lot of the members here worked with a lot of these tools – carpenter tools and machinist tools – and they realize that if somebody doesn’t preserve the past, it will soon be gone and nobody will have any idea,” Wanamaker said. “That’s what the whatsit program is; it’s designed to make sure the use for some of these things doesn’t get lost to time.”

Wanamaker and Witzel both hosted the whatsit program, where members brought in unknown items to see if others could figure out what they were for.

Usually, a member of the group knew the answer.

They had no problem identifying an odd loopy, corkscrew piece of metal that turned out to be a cavalry corral post. It was screwed into the ground at night, ropes were passed through the loops to make a corral, and then it could be removed and carried along to the next location.

Jim Price, of Naylor, Mo., had a lot of the answers. Not only is he a Ph. D anthropologist and archeologist, he learned from personal experience.

“I grew up in the Ozarks where a lot of these things were still used,” Price said. “Hand planes, hand saws. Houses, barns, everything was built with hand tools. There was no electricity until 1949, and it was another 10 years before anybody had power tools, so I saw a lot of hand work in the ’50s.

“My father’s still alive. He’s 94 years old. He’s a woodworker. Uses hand tools to this day.”

Price was impressed by the rope-making display, which had a wide variety of machines both home-made and store-made.

Everyone seemed to agree, and that display, by Jim and Phyllis Moffet of Modesto, Ill., won the People’s Choice award for best display. Second place went to a leather and harness making display by Dick Kates of Oakland.

Gerald and Mary Lou Bockenstedt brought a display of pattern-maker planes, used to carve out wooden patterns used to make molds for metal items. They both enjoy the hobby.

“The first one I bought cost me over $1,000,” said Mary Lou Bockenstedt. “I was at a sale, and this one lady and I were bidding against each other.

“I just love tools.”

Royce Winge, of Ames, said he collects all kinds of things. For this show he brought a display of brass, bronze and copper items. The most unique, he said, was a self-heating soldering iron from 1915.

He said the handle would be filled with gasoline, and then pumped up to send flames down to the iron. It’s classified as “very rare” by the Blowtorch Collectors’ Association, meaning they’ve seen only 10 or fewer like it.

Finding what’s unique seems to be one of the goals.

Even Wanamaker said he’d found several items at this weekend’s sale which he’d heard of but never seen.

“You always learn something new at these,” said LeRoy Witzel’s wife Susan Witzel, “and I love it.”