Come take a walk with me back in time, along a trail less traveled. Pioneer tools are an example of ingenuity and common sense. Pioneers in the mid-1800s couldn’t go back 1,000 miles to a hardware store and buy new axes, shovels, scythes, cauldrons, ox and mule shoes. When eating utensils and dishes were broken, they had to be replaced and were handmade from wood. Some unique tools were silk worms raised by pioneer women who harvested silk from their webs and spun it into dresses, scarves and infant wear.
In the kitchen, when pans, wash tubs and cauldrons developed leaks, some method had to be devised for repair. Sometimes they were handcarved from a tree branch and forks and spoons were carved in a similar fashion.
A butter churn was made from a tree stump hollowed out, with a wooden handle and wooden paddles which was then turned to churn the butter inside. Butter molds and paddles were carved from wood. The molds were square-box shaped with a wooden handle and square bottom that pressed into the box on the lump of butter until all the whey was squeezed out. Then, the butter was placed into cold water to chill. Buttermilk separated by this process was stored in tin or wooden pitchers which made it a mild sweet drink. At the DUP museum in Tooele in the pioneer cabin has a handmade wooden table on which sits a butter mold and paddle used to press the butter.
Beds, cradles, tables and chairs were handcarved from wood harvested by the pioneers. Some were intricately carved, creating beauty in a sometimes harsh land. Notice the carving on the handmade chairs in the cabin on site at the museum and see the leather strings used to tie the legs and seat together, as well as the leather which covers the chair back and seat.
Almost anything they needed, pioneers in the 1800s made. Brooms had long, wooden handles with wild stiff grasses for the sweep, tied on with rawhide. Scythes, pitchforks and rakes were made from tree branches. Finding the perfect branch took time because it had to be a certain size and needed the proper amount of limbs coming off it all going the same way to make the forks, and the same for the teeth of the rake. The scythe was a different matter needing a thick limb, which had to curve in the right direction at the bottom.
From there it went to the forge where a piece of metal was sharpened and fitted onto the curve, so it could be used as a handheld cutting tool to harvest crops.
Pioneer men used forges to work iron into different tools. They used a great deal of charcoal for the fire in the forge.
To keep it going and burning extremely hot, a tall bellows was attached to the forge from the side, with a hand crank to wind it up and blow air into it. Often a boy would be assigned the chore of cranking bellows until it roared, while the blacksmith worked the metal. A necessity was the workbench and often a large tree was selected and cut down, leaving the stump as tall as the blacksmith needed. Then he built his shop around it so he had a place for the anvil and his tools. Many of these workbench stumps can be found across the West and in ghost towns.
During the process of building, cutting and working the metal in a blacksmith shop, the metal turned black, hence the name “blacksmith.” Tongs for holding hot metal and hammers were necessary to the blacksmith. A way had to be determined to make nails, and since square headed nails were easier to make than round, they identify the era they were made and used in when found today.
Hinges for gates, wagons and doors, as well as flatirons and their bases were made with the forge. Look for the flatiron in the museum with the muleshoe handle. Someone really needed that iron despite its handle being broken off. During the process to repair farm implements, iron would be heated until it melted. Then, the flux was spooned across the two pieces, forming a rough “weld” that usually held for a long time. Oxen, mule and horse shoes were made by the blacksmith to protect the animal’s hooves. A piece of metal would be heated to white hot, pounded on the anvil into the rough shape of the hoof. Then, it was dipped into cold water to temper so it wouldn’t shatter and was nailed onto the hoof.
An anvil was a heavy tool necessary for a pioneer in working with repairs or bending metal to a certain shape. It had a round hole on top and a square hole, with a point at one end. The holes in the anvil helped to shape a metal rod into a square point or round point. Much metal shaping was done using the anvil.
Another pioneer “tool” used by pioneers was the wild horse corral. Capturing wild mules and horses for plowing and riding was a help to the farmers and ranchers in the West. If you find one you may imagine a ghost herd racing into the hidden corral, with the poles left leaning against the gate waiting to be shoved into place behind them.
Pioneer tools are many within the walls of the Tooele County Company DUP museum in Tooele. Be sure to visit when it opens in May, and try to identify the use to which each tool was put.
Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at v4bar@wirelessbeehive. com.