In the autumn of 2010, I was approached by the Executive Director of Historic Sugartown, Inc., with a proposal for a project. In their restored ca. 1830 Bank Barn their is a collection of antique woodworking and blacksmithing tools, farm implements, and other instruments. While some time previous a volunteer to that organization had made a worksheet explaining the use of some of these tools, on the whole the collection was uncatalogued, disorganized, and in disarray.
At the time, I had very limited knowledge of such tools. The only thing in my blood had been machining — not agriculture, husbandry, or agriculture. And so I undertook a crash course in learning about traditional farming, woodworking, and decorative arts techniques. Thankfully, my art history and conservation education has served me well in this regard; being familiar with a number of traditional decorative arts techniques made research much easier (and, it would ultimately be such research that would propel me towards the information sciences). Indeed, cataloging work at the Chester County Historical Society was also very helpful in this regard, having exposed me to such items ranging from pyrograpic supplies and equipment, to camera lucidae, to woodworking tools.
But this was still a new ball game. I dove into reading everything I could — Eric Sloane and his many volumes on the subject, old encyclopediae, even such things as local farmer Marshall Jones’ memoirs. And for cataloging such sources of information proved invaluable — as did, appropriately, the U.S. Patent Office, which shed a great deal of light on the ages of many of the implements.
At first it was difficult to tell a Jack Plane from a moulding plane, and a shingling hatchet from a zaxe and all of the other tools. But over time I developed an eye for it. And in the end there were only a few homemade tools that were unidentifiable.
But cataloging (and keeping track of donors and those which were on loan from CCHS and elsewhere) was only half the battle. They also had to be organized and displayed in a logical and interpretive manner. After all, these tools had to make sense to Sugartown’s diverse array of visitors, ranging from enthusiasts to schoolchildren. It would not be my first time writing labels or organizing an exhibit, but trying to utilize the space effectively would be a challenge — especially since I would be working in freezing temperatures (barns are not known for their insulation. I would end up with a case of cold uticaria — selling and edema of the skin — on more than one occasion, as well as touch of frostbite on a toe. Let it not be said that I am not thoroughly dedicated to my work).
It took weeks, but soon I had a plan laid out, and labels written. By April, everything was in place and organized, and the barn was opened for Historic Sugartown Day.
The end result can be seen here.