Old Tools: Sacred Family Heirlooms

Working with our grandparents’ old tools connects us to our ancestors, to work and to tradition.

| August/September 2013

  • Tools used by three generations of the author’s family.
    Photo By Matthew Stallbaumer
  • From his father, Lonnie, the author inherited a passel of old tools, an appreciation for the value of hard work — and his ears.
    Photo By Carolyn Welch
  • In some families, old implements like these can be as fitting an inheritance as jewelry, land or furniture.
    Photo Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society; WHS-75823
  • This heavy, 3-foot open-end wrench worked hard on the railroad.
    Photo By Matthew Stallbaumer

I remember watching my dad drill a hole in our floor with a brace and bit when I was about 3 years old. As he turned the brace, I listened to the sound of the bit chewing through the lumber. A wooden tendril curled up and away from the plank, and I remember how intensely Dad concentrated on the task. It’s one of only two or three memories I have from that time, and the moment feels solemn and almost ceremonial to me.

My family has never been the kind that passes along tracts of land or rooms full of antique furniture. Our family legacies take shape in more subtle ways — through skills, stories and tools, and through working with our hands. The first installment of my inheritance arrived in the form of a homemade toolbox crafted from a few pieces of 1-by-6-inch lumber and a single bent piece of sheet metal. Its handle was made from a strip of aluminum enclosed in an old piece of garden hose, and I still carry it that way. The wood is worn smooth, the sheet metal rusted. The dirt in the bottom of the box has probably been there for 60 or 70 years.

When I got the box, it contained half a dozen rusty open-end wrenches; a ruined pocket knife; an ancient ice pick; a crescent wrench; two box-end wrenches; a whetstone; four hole punches; several tiny, worn-out screwdrivers; a fine pair of antediluvian lineman’s pliers; and three hose clamps of obsolete design.

The homemade toolbox also held a couple of items I couldn’t identify. One of them was a nut driver of some kind. I still have that, though I haven’t used it because I can’t figure out how it works. There was also a little wooden-handled knife that looked as though it once might have been a farrier’s knife, designed to trim animal hooves. By the time the knife came to me, the end of its blade had been broken, so the tool’s origin was hard to determine. I lost the knife last year, using it to open bales of hay on a snowy day. I used it for all sorts of stuff, although never to trim a hoof, and I miss it.

I first saw that knife in my grandfather’s hand — or it could have been my dad’s. They often worked together, and the tools belonged to both of them, frequently passed down to them from some other relative or friend. I’ve had the toolbox and its cargo since about 1978, when my grandfather died. They’ve ridden with me in about 20 different cars and trucks, and have resided in sheds or garages in a dozen different towns in nine states spread from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic, from Minnesota down to the Mexican border.

Still, the toolbox smells like a particular place: the storeroom in the back of my grandparents’ house. It smells of wet sand and used oil, cobwebs and dry rot. It’s a smell that conjures “home” for me.


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