Wrenches represent more than work to Wakefield man

This article originally appeared in the Sioux City Journal in December 2008. It is reprinted here with permission from the author, Nick Hytrek.

WAKEFIELD, Neb. — It's just old iron, right?

Weathered by years of use in barns and fields or from sitting, forgotten, in the bottom of a bucket in some farmer's shop.

Scrap now, something no longer needed, rendered useless by technology and the efficiency of modern industry. Most people wouldn't give the old wrenches that still turn up in farm sheds a second look before tossing them in the trash.

Russ Marshall isn't like most people, though.

To Marshall, those old wrenches aren't just iron. They're a symbol of modern agriculture's roots. A reminder of how different things were a couple generations ago. The wrenches Marshall collects and displays in the basement of the Graves Public Library Museum here represent the ingenuity of farmers and manufacturers who were constantly looking for a better, more efficient machine to help them get the most out of their land.

“It's a little piece of history,” Marshall says about each wrench. “Most of the machines these wrenches came with are long gone. This wrench is a piece of that.

“It's just junk to most people. In reality, it is just scrap iron, but it's got some history, and that's why I like it.”

Nowadays, a half-inch bolt is a half-inch bolt, whether it comes from a planter or a combine. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, nuts and bolts didn't come in standard sizes. Each manufacturer made its own parts, so each piece of farm equipment came with its own unique set of wrenches, tools that generally wouldn't work on anything else. The more equipment a farmer bought, the more wrenches he accumulated.

And the more they disappeared. Many hung on hooks on the machine and would fall off when traveling over bumpy fields. Because they were made of malleable iron, the wrenches broke easily and were thrown away. As newer equipment was developed, those old wrenches became obsolete, useless. They wound up in dark corners in farmers' shops and barns.

Collectors like Marshall, who lives in Allen, Neb., bring them back into the light. Some do it for profit. Marshall gazes around at the display cases holding hundreds of wrenches and shakes his head. He understands that motivation, he says, but his wrenches are more than just a way to make a couple extra bucks.

“There's a lot of dollars of wrenches here, but that's not why I'm in it,” he says. “I always did like antiques and the history behind them.”

Some of the history was passed to him first hand. He remembers as a boy visiting his great uncle Walter Meier, who collected wrenches and would show them to him and tell him stories about each one. At around age 12, Marshall's grandfather Walter Swan gave him a bucket of 40 or so old wrenches he pulled out of the shop on his Coleridge, Neb., farm. Marshall's collection had begun.

Over the course of some 30 years, Marshall has hit countless flea markets, farm sales, swap meets and Internet sites searching for wrenches he doesn't own, a task made harder as his collection number has climbed into the thousands

“It's the thrill of finding one you don't have. They still show up,” he says.

And they'll continue to do so. Many of the companies that manufactured the buggies and farm equipment for which the wrenches were made either merged or went out of business long ago. No one knows how many different wrenches were made.

“There were thousands of farm implement manufacturers, so we'll never find them all,” Marshall says. “We find new wrenches all the time we've never seen before. That's what makes it interesting is you'll never have them all.“

Chances are, there are wrenches long forgotten sitting in old barns across the country. They'll turn up when someone preparing to sell a farm cleans out the old buildings. Perhaps that person will recognize their value and list the old tools on the sale bill.

And if they do, guys like Marshall will be more than happy to take a look at them, bringing with them the hopes of adding to their collection, harvesting a piece of history.

By Nick Hytrek, Sioux City Journal.

You can see photos of the collection in our photo gallery.

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