There’s an old rake in our shed with a handle worn smooth from use. We inherited it from Jilda’s mom Ruby along with many other things. Our great nephew Jordan loves playing with the rake. The first time he saw the old tool, he immediately understood its purpose, and within a few minutes had raked up a mountain of pine straw which he used to practice his swan dive. This tool will still be useful long after we’re gone but this is not the case with other ones that became obsolete as technology evolved.
For example, a few days ago when I lost a bolt on the garden tiller, I headed to the barn. Jilda’s dad Sharkey never threw away a nut or bolt, but tossed them in a bucket. Whenever I need small pieces of hardware, I look there first. Over in the corner, I noticed an old plow. Beginning at the turn of the last century, farmers hitched these tools behind scrawny mules to break ground for gardens.
The first time I saw one in use was when my cousin James Lee Robbins plowed my mama’s garden in the late 1950s. He used unique words to communicate with the old mule. “Gee” meant turn one way and “haw” meant turn the other. Dragging the old plow, he managed to break up a nice garden plot in a little over an hour. The plow in the barn has been there since we moved here in 1980. I could sell it for scrap but I keep it to remember how far things have come.
Another tool we inherited was a “clinker-getter” tool. I named it that because I was unsure what the real name was. It’s a device about three feet long with a mechanical pincher. People used it to remove clinkers from a coal-burning stove or fireplace without burning their hands. It’s no longer useful for that, but I repurposed it for entertaining visiting kids. You wouldn’t believe the things they do with this device. I’ve seen it used for picking up June bugs and flinging rocks. Grownups also find it handy as a steely mouthed monster used to terrorize a yard-full of young’uns. It is a handy tool. I’m glad we kept it all these years.
The tools treasured by those who came before us were vital for survival. These devices that were used to scratch out a living from the land are now considered relics. The only place you see them today is hanging from the ceiling at Cracker Barrel.
As the nature of work changed, so did the tools we use. There’s not as much heavy lifting today, even with jobs requiring manual labor. I’m sure my nephew Haven who is a plumber would argue this point, but even he would be the first to admit that tools have made his life easier.
These days, much of my work requires computer keyboards, small digital cameras, electronic communications, and social networks. A majority of the heavy lifting I do now is mental. But some days after hours on a keyboard, it feels as if I had spent the day hoeing cotton.
As I wrote this column, I tried to imagine what early settlers would make of things today. I’m sure they would struggle with how much tools have changed. It took hours of sweat and toil to break up a garden spot of a few acres with a mule and plow. I’m sure it would be difficult to wrap their reins around the fact that today they could sit in the air-conditioned cab of a high-end tractor and break up the same plot in minutes.
I read where that some of these old tools are making a comeback for people moving “back to the land.” I’d be willing to bet if the early settlers had a choice between cussing a mule or riding on a tractor, they would choose the latter.