An ax named Tom

This is a good time to clean and oil all the tools and garden equipment that were used around the place last summer. Picking the kind of day that I should be cutting more kindling or stacking the last load of wood brought down from the hill, I open the barn door and survey the long rows of rakes, shovels, hoes, axes, cultivators, and picks and wonder if perhaps this is a larger task than I want.

I remember all the old tools and farm equipment I had seen on a recent trip to a farmers' museum. The planes and chisels were three times the size of ours today.

Of course these crude tools are sold at a good price now. Ox yokes, butter churns, and foot warmers decorate many a home, the owner often unaware of their former use.

I like to think about the hands that held them and the times they were used. I have a number of old tools and relics of the past, which I got at auctions. I like them around where I can see them, standing against the barn, propped along the fences. They are a reminder that ''good tools belong to those who use them best.''

We might regard some of the tools as clumsy or ugly by today's design. However, many of today's tools would be considered unfit for our early craftsmen. The steel and plastic handles, for example, lack the spring and ''feel'' of seasoned wood. Many tools were made of wood not because of the lack of metal but because it was believed that grain and fruit should not come into contact with metal.

What patina exists on the handles of these tools, smoothed by the hands' constant use! The maker of the tool and the one who used it had a common bond; both respected the craftsmanship of tools. There was an unusual identity placed on them; for instance, many were given names. It is not uncommon to pick up an ax with ''Tom'' or ''Jack'' scratched on it. They were given a place similar to that of pet animals.

When we muse on tools as symbols, we are enjoying the romance of human progress. How unique and practical the early settlers were, making a tool for each job, from a cheesemaker's curd stirrer to a big winnowing scoop for throwing flailed grain into the air to let the wind blow away the chaff.

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