This weekend the Whitingham and Halifax historical societies are offering an opportunity to learn about agricultural tools typically found on the Vermont farm of yesterday, the mysterious and forgotten implements as well as the more commonly known tools. On Sunday, August 10, at 2 pm, the two historical societies are sponsoring a presentation and discussion with Paul Wood, a Vermont historian and expert in antique farm implements. The free event will be held at the Whitingham Municipal Center on Route 100.
Wood is a retired engineer with a lifelong interest in history, and an interest in Vermont farm implements that goes back 25 years, to when he and his wife purchased a farm in northern Vermont. Wood says his farm didn’t have any caches of old tools lying around, yet, but the barns and outbuildings piqued his curiosity about what went on there in the past. “Tools are a pretty good entry into understanding a farming operation,” Wood says, “and most of the tools are pretty durable, so they’re still around.”
Although the barns were bare when he moved into the old farm, Wood says he has filled them over the years with everything from the most common implements to rare oddities. “My wife allows them in the house for a while then they have to migrate to the barns,” he says. “It’s good to live with these things for a while, you see lots of things you didn’t notice at first. You might pick it up and turn it over in just the right light and find faint writing on it that helps you identify who made it or what it was used for. It’s not good enough to go and look at tools in a museum, you need to have them around to learn about them.”
Wood says there are still some tools in his collection for which the use remains a mystery. For him, the mystery is part of the fun of collecting. “The first farm tool I bought, I had no idea what it was,” he recalls. “I just liked the look of it. There were two of us bidding on it at auction. After I won it, the other bidder came over and asked me if I knew what it was. When I said I had no idea, he told me it was a cheese press.”
Wood later learned that the cheese press had been invented by a Vermont farmer from Bridgewater, who had a cheese factory and made and patented his own cheese press. “I was hooked,” he said. “I got a lot of kicks out of that one, and it got me going.”
Wood says one of the reasons he collects tools is to preserve knowledge. “I suspect the guy who was bidding against me may have been the only person at the auction that knew what the cheese press was; the knowledge has disappeared. It’s fun to bring it back and expose people to it again.”
Just looking at what’s left of a tool may not always reveal its actual use. Wood says the “hay thief” he’s holding in his photo is often found without a handle. The shape leads even some professionals to believe it was part of a harpoon.
“Some antique dealers refer to them as whaling harpoons to sell them for a high figure,” he says. “But they were definitely used on the farm. Most had curved handles, some had straight handles.” Despite the name, the implement wasn’t used by hay rustlers. It was used to withdraw a sample of hay from the interior of a pile of stored hay to test for dampness, fermentation, and temperature – indicators of the risk of imminent spontaneous combustion.
Although Wood collects a variety of pre-1900s farm tools, he specializes in tools used in butter making. “After the 1850s, Vermont agriculture became more focused on buttermaking,” he says, “so there was a lot of inventiveness for the needs of butter making, and a lot of tools and machines that have Vermont origins.”
Wood has found that many people share his interest in history and old tools, and he says tools provide a tangible connection to history and the lives of the people who used them. “I like the challenge of visualizing how they were used, and I’m interested in how people earned a living, what kind of professions there were, what kind of things people used in their professional lives. And there’s also curiosity - mechanically-minded people like to figure out how things work. It’s an interesting challenge to be presented with a tool and figure out what it does and how people used it.”
Sunday’s presentation will include a focus on tools with a Vermont connection. Wood will bring a variety of tools along to illustrate his discussion, but he also invites others to bring their own finds along for him to identify – if he can. “From my standpoint, it’s better if I can’t identify them,” he says. “When someone brings in something new, it’s always exciting and interesting.”