Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

Across the Fence: Tools of the Trade


My grandpas, both Nolting and Zeek, and my dad were farmers, ranchers, horsemen and ‘Jacks of all trades.’ Out of necessity they were carpenters, plumbers, electricians, auto and tractor mechanics, welders, veterinarians and whatever else was needed at the time. This was nothing new for men of their era and nothing new for many rural folks today.

I helped build my first barn before I ever went to school. Although my responsibilities were menial and included fetching tools, bringing nails and holding down boards on the sawhorses, I was a part of the crew and I watched and I learned. Since that time I have followed footsteps that led me down similar paths. I have been farmer, rancher, cowboy and builder, businessman, plumber, electrician and mechanic. I’ve built barns and sheds, houses and decks. I’ve raised cattle and crops, fixed tractors and bailers and mowers and rakes and worn out pickups that needed to last just a little bit longer. All these skills have served me well over the years and I take pride in them and the men who taught me how.

These different skills have resulted in an accumulation of the tools of many different trades as well as an appreciation for the older tools used by the tradesmen in days long past. That first barn I helped build had every board, plank and timber cut with a hand saw. Holes were drilled with a brace and bit and every nail was driven by hand, from the 20-penny spikes that held support beams in place to the small, galvanized nails that tacked down the thousands of cedar shingles on the roof.

I have an old hand saw that belonged to my Grandpa Nolting as well as what I call a flat-bar that he designed and had the local blacksmith make from an old wagon leaf spring. It is very likely the first ever ‘wonder bar.’ Too bad Grandpa didn’t patent it. I have bucksaws and crosscuts, scythes and corn planters. I have saddles and tack, harness and hames, buggy wrenches and other tools that Dad will look at, scratch his head and say, “I don’t remember what that was used for.”

My mother’s uncles, Tom, Lee and Earl, known as the Stephan brothers, were barn builders. They built many barns on the farm sites around northeastern Kansas. I have been told that they were often seen, walking out of town, long before daylight, with toolboxes in hand. They would arrive at the jobsite before dawn, work until dusk and walk back home. Their toolboxes contained a hammer and chisels, a wood rasp, drawknife and hatchet, a brace and bit, a hand saw, a square, a plumb bob and string line, a level, a folding wooden ruler and a wooden hand plane. With only those tools, a lot of sweat and a ton of skill they built barns that are still standing nearly a hundred years later. When I look at the work these old-timers did with just a few simple tools, I marvel at their skill and the obvious pride of workmanship that they had and I like having some of their old tools around.

There’s just something about holding an old, well-used tool in your hands that brings a bit of pride with it. To feel the heft of the thing, the smoothness of its wooden handle or the shining wear of forged steel, to imagine the hands that held it long ago and the skill with which they used it.

To many, these old relics may seem like junk that only take up space that could accommodate more useful things. To me, they are a part of who I am and where I came from. True, these old tools are not museum pieces and they have been replaced in my toolbox by electric drills and circular saws, laser levelers and power hammers. However, there are some old tools that still see some use. I enjoy cutting a few chunks of firewood with an old crosscut saw, I keep grandpa’s handsaw sharpened and hanging in the shop for a needed quick, fine, finish cut and sometimes I use the old brace to bore a hand cut hole.

Perhaps it’s foolish sentimentality to write about old worn and rusty tools, but one of my prize possessions is my grandpa’s double bitted axe that still gets regular use. Maybe you also have an old ‘tool of the trade’ passed down from your earlier generations. If so, I hope this poem might spark a bit of sentimentality of your own.

Grandpa’s Double

By M. Timothy Nolting

There are things belonged to Grandpa, passed to Dad and on to me.

Mostly treasured little trinkets that will spark a memory.

There’re mementos and reminders and old pictures hung with tacks,

But I’m prideful that I’m ownin’ Grandpa’s double-bitted axe.

The handle’s made of hick’ry, long and slender, straight and true.

It was over fifty years ago that Grandpa bought it new.

The blade is even older, by a century I’d guess

And was prob’ly in the wagon when great-grandpa headed west.

I can see my Grandpa swingin’ with an easy kind of strength

When I was barely taller than the hick’ry handles length.

The sun would catch the gleaming edge as Grandpa swung it back

And chips of wood exploded when it landed with a ‘WHACK!’

I can smell the fresh cut wedges, shards of pine and hedge and oak

And I hear the timber echo each time Grandpa’s double spoke.

And I see the sparks a-flyin’ from the spinnin’ sharpenin’ stone

As he built a silvery edge that he would later carefully hone.

Now the handle’s worn and smooth, with dark stains that still remain

From honest sweat, of leathered hands, that soaked into the grain.

And I add my sweat to theirs, grip the shaft as they have done,

And it feels like a handshake passed from father down to son.

But I also have the feelin’, when I’m workin’, day or night,

That Grandpa is a-watchin’, makin’ sure I do it right.

And when I use the double… Well, somehow I kinda know

That he’s smilin’ as he’s thinkin’, “Boy, don’t cut off your toe!”

Volume 1 of “101 Yesterdays”, containing 50 selected columns from the past six years is now available. To order contact Tim at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com or send $17.00 plus $3.00 postage and handling to M. Timothy Nolting P.O. Box 68 Bushnell, NE 69128


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