Helen and Just-Plane-Jack Devitt share their Ottoville home with thousands of Ohio-made tools ... especially planes. Attractively-displayed tools decorate their walls, fill their shelves and claim an unusually high percentage of floor space in spare rooms and an outbuilding. Some of them are breathtakingly beautiful, highly-polished, artistic examples of old-time craftsmanship. Others are more crude, though functional, and with an appeal all their own ... more historic than artistic.
Jack not only collects tools but he also researches, photographs and writes about them. In fact, he's recently published a book that's every bit as attractive, impressive and well organized as his tool collection. The book is titled The Who, What, Where and When of Ohio Toolmakers and Their Tools and it's 365 pages, 2,500 pictures, 3,000 toolmakers and 6,500 items of Ohio shop, farm and household tool-making history from 1800 to 1950.
Jack was born in 1934 in Moore, Indiana ... about four miles southeast of Waterloo.
"At the time, Dad was running a huckster truck and delivering gasoline for my great-uncle, who had a store there," he says. "But my parents were from Morgan County in southeastern Ohio and our family went back to a farm there ... near McConnelsville ... when I was pretty young. I went to a two-room country school in Unionville, but we used only one of them as a classroom for all eight grades. I went there for seven years and then, for the eighth grade, to a three-room school where they used only two rooms as classrooms. Then I went to a high school that was pretty good-sized. I graduated in 1952 and there were 67 in my class. I never had to walk to school. In Unionville, Dad was the president of the school board and Mom was a teacher. Mom drove to school and we picked up kids along the way ... kind of like a bus."
After high school, Jack headed off to Ohio State on an academic scholarship and earned a degree in agricultural education in 1956.
"Helen and I met during college and we were married in '58," he says. "She was attending Bowling green State University, majoring in home economics. We met through friends, who fixed us up on a blind date. I was doing my student teaching at Lima Shawnee High School at the time."
Jack taught for a year at Walnut Township High School near Circleville.
"That was followed by two years at Mount Victory," he says. "I was teaching there when we got married."
The newlyweds then moved to Ottoville, where Jack taught vocational-agriculture for 14 years while Helen taught home economics at Continental and Ottoville.
"Then I taught vo-ag at Delphos for a couple of years," he says. "I served as the director of adult education at Vantage Vocational School in Van Wert from 1976 until I retired in 1986."
Of course, retiring means different things to different people. And for Jack, it meant work.
"I served for awhile as Life Education Advisor at the Lima Engine Ford Plant," he says. "That was an educational program offered to the employees by Ford, the UAW and the University of Michigan. There I was, an Ohio State graduate associated with a U of M educational program! It was kind of tough psychologically. I retired from that. In fact, I retired lots of times. Then I had a heart attack and almost died. I had a double bypass and recovered from that."
And did the bypass slow him down? Hardly. He did some substitute teaching, returned to Vantage and served another year as director of adult education, served on the Ottoville city council and spent two months as Ottoville's temporary mayor.
"At the end of 1995, I finally retired from work," he says with a laugh.
That's if you don't count buying and selling old tools as work. And writing, publishing and promoting his own book. And serving as president of the Ohio Tool Collectors' Association, as a director of the Midwest Tool Collectors' Association and as an active member of the national Early American Industries Association.
"But believe me," he says, "compared to my past jobs, this isn't work!"
Just Plane Jack
Jack became seriously interested in old tools about 15 years ago.
"I bought some old planes made by Ohio toolmakers," he says. "Then I bought a couple of books about old tools. That was followed by some more old tools. And after that, it just sort of took on a life of its own. I had my shop painted scarlet and gray and I decorated it with Ohio State items. I decided to specialize in Ohio-made tools ... especially planes ... and display them in my shop. I attended lots of auctions, swap meets and so on, always looking for old Ohio-made tools. Most collectors won't collect any tools less than 50 years old. But in my book, I cover tools from 1800 to 1950. There weren't many tools made in Ohio before 1800. In New England and the other Eastern Seaboard states, old tools can date back much farther than that."
Jack has about 1,500 tools in his personal inventory, but that includes sets that he counts as single tools.
"In terms of individual items," he says, "I don't know how many I have. I've never counted them that way."
About seven years ago, he decided to create a book identifying Ohio toolmakers and their tools.
"About five years ago, I really got serious about it," he says. "And I've worked on it steadily for the past two years. I took pictures of many of my own tools and I visited about 25 different collectors and took photos of their collections. I also used lots of pictures from old catalogs."
Jack is especially interested in planes made by Ohioans. These full shelves hold just part of his collection!
Though most early-American tool-making naturally occurred along the Eastern seaboard, by 1800 Ohio was the gateway to western expansion.
"Once settlers began moving across the Alleghenies, Ohio became a gateway state," Jack says. "In the early 1800s, Cincinnati was a hotbed of tool manufacturing. I list 166 Cincinnati makers of wooden planes, for example, and I'm sure I haven't been able to identify all of them. As late as 1850, Cincinnati ... with a population of 115,435 ... was still the largest city west of the Appalachian Mountains. That same census records a population of only 29,963 in Chicago. A lot of the people moving west in the early 1800s went through Cincinnati and picked up the tools they needed before traveling on. Until 1870 or so, many of these toolmakers were small, family-run operations. The Ohio Tool Company started up in Columbus using prison labor. Then the Sandusky Tool Company started up. And then larger companies began to follow and take over the tool market. In spite of the large companies, there were always individual guys who invented and marketed tools here and there. And that's still true today."
Jack's book concentrates on shop, household and farm tools.
"Most ... but not all ... are hand tools," he says. "I did include a few commercial lathes, but almost all the tools in the book are ones that a guy would have bought, taken home and used on the farm or in his house or shop. Many early toolmakers were blacksmiths and many remained anonymous. So there's no way to identify the makers of those tools."
Collecting vintage tools is an avocation that occasionally offers handsome monetary rewards.
"Old tools steadily increase in value," Jack says. "The collector can always tell his wife he's investing his money ... and be reasonably truthful. I've seen some hand corn shellers rise in value from 50 cents to $500. The highest price I know of that was paid for a hand tool was $27,000 for a plane. Planes are my favorite tools ... hence the Just Plane Jack nickname ... and I have about 500 Ohio-made ones."
Though it's usually fairly easy for Jack to figure out when a toolmaker started in business, it's often quite difficult to discover when that same toolmaker went out of business.
"Most companies," he says, "make a selling point of the fact that they've been in business for x number of years ... since 1879, for example. But of course, that same tool maker doesn't make a point of publicizing the date when he goes out of business."
For Jack, tools show just how inventive Americans have been.
"If you wanted a table saw in the 1880s," he says, "you didn't just go buy an electric table saw. First you had to decide whether you wanted a water-, hand-, foot-, horse- or steam-powered one. By the end of the 1800s, you also had gasoline engines added to the power mix."
Jack's book was a long, complicated project that required a great deal of effort and time.
"But I never got tired of it," he says. "I enjoyed every minute I spent on it. It was never work. In fact, I'm ready to start another one. The only other books like mine that I know of are about Pennsylvania and New Jersey toolmakers and their tools. Since I was born in Indiana, I may do one about the toolmakers from there."
Del's Note: If you're interested in old tools in general or Ohio tools in particular, you might be interested in Jack's book ... Ohio Toolmakers And Their Tools. Send us a note at News@FarmlandNews.com and we'll pass the message on to Jack.