(photo credits: Ralph Gardner, Jr)
One might think that someone with Lisa Weilbacker’s pedigree – she’s the former executive director of Historic Hudson, an organization dedicated to preserving Hudson, New York’s heritage; she was also curator at the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York City and has a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania – would have better things to do than rummage around old barns and tool boxes.
But in a show devoted to early hand tools and farm implements that she’s curated at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook, NY she makes a bold and compelling argument that some tools need to reconsidered; not only as clever ways to plant a potato, harvest wheat, or saw ice when the Hudson River froze over in the days before refrigeration, but also as art objects.
“It becomes all about shapes,” she said as we admired a trip rake, a horse-drawn device used to gather hay during the 1800’s that occupies the Historical Society’s full ground-floor exhibition space. “The beauty of it becomes apparent.”
I know what you’re thinking. Tools are great; even if you can never seem to find that Phillips head screwdriver hiding in your utility drawer. And where would civilization be without the hammer? Stones attached to sticks date back to the Paleolithic. The value of wrenches or pliers in a pinch? Say no more.
But art? Could there be a more yawn-inducing subject than tools?
I’ll get back to the show at Columbia County Historical Society shortly. But anticipating my visit made me consider those in my own tool chest and basement in ways I hadn’t previously.
The average tool box is a sort of sarcophagus in which your own and previous generation’s hammers, nails, chisels, hinges, screws — and other prosaic objects for which you can’t find the name and have to describe their use when you visit the hardware store — sit unloved and ignored until you need them.
But have you ever considered how they got there? How many hands over how many decades clutched them before yours?
That’s the thing about tools. They’re relatively indestructible. As a Swiss Army knife salesman once told me – you’ll lose it before it breaks.
Sad to say I don’t own anything resembling the vast majority of implements on the historical society’s walls. For example, early and late 19th Century eel spears. “They were a great source of nutrition,” Lisa said, referring to the snake-like fish. “They’re born in the Atlantic and make their way up the Hudson and into its tributaries.”
The claw-like shapes of bow cradled scythes remind one of pterodactyls, those prehistoric flying reptiles. “Not only are they cutting but raking at the same time,” Lisa explained.
Single wheel cultivators – both horse and hand – as well as handmade hay forks, rakes and shovels will leave you awed at the practical genius of 18th and 19th century farmers.
And then there’s all that oversized ice harvesting equipment, most of it manufactured by Gifford Wood Company in Hudson, NY. The work, dangerous and backbreaking, was done in January and February when the river froze over. “It was such a big industry and we have no idea,” Lisa said as she stood before an enlargement of a 19th century engraving depicting workers and their horses harvesting ice by moonlight. “It evaporated overnight with the invention of refrigeration.”
But what the show really did was prompt me to reexamine the rusting tools in my own basement and garage. Lisa told me that if you shine a flashlight over them you may come across markings that can offer clues on when the objects were manufactured and by whom.
And they did. For example, a hand drill with a bit brace and a smooth doorknob like handle. And on the side of it were the initials P.S.&W. Co. Turns out they refer to the Peck, Stow and Wilcox out of Southington, CT. The company existed from 1870 to 1950.
I also found heavy steel pliers at least a foot long. Though they made no sense because they only opened a few millimeters wide and weren’t adjustable.
However, such is the glory of the Internet that, whatever its perils, with a little detective work you can track down the most obscure information and devices.
On the side of whatever that tool was were the words “Warranted. Forged Steel. Made in U.S.A.” And above it, smudged by rust and wear, what looked like the word Crew’s.
I happened to find the identical one, if in better shape, for sale on EBay. Its seller described it as a Vintage Carew’s #12 End Cutter Nippers Blacksmith Tool.
Then the question becomes — how did it end up in my garage? My grandparents bought the house in 1948. Did the tools come with the house? Did my grandparents bring them up from the city? I doubt it. They lived at the Fifth Avenue Hotel on 9th Street. They probably had little occasion to shoe horses.
Perhaps it comes from my wife’s family. They had a lumberyard on Long Island that dated back to 1910.
The charm of the ‘Early Hand Tools & Farm Implements’ show at the Columbia County Historical Society is that it sends one hurtling back in time; it offers an elegant argument that history, as well as culture and even art, can sometimes reside in the most humble places.
—Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County.