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Weasels and pig-snout cutters? Tools with tales

November 21, 2012 - Don Williams

Much like most of the early settlers, Adirondackers made life easier by creating tools for every possible task, and it delights me when some of those early tools surface. Ingenious inventors also patented a variety of early tools to help with those labor-intensive tasks, sometimes creating a variety of styles to do the same job. Such was one of my finds on a recent opportunity I had to take a “tool antiquing” trip.

In my old tool collection I had three different cherry pitters/stoners. It appears that our ancestors made good use of cherries — preserved, dried, dessert fruit, and in the making of cherry pies. And all of those seeds/stones had to be removed without destroying the cherry; thus, the cherry stoner came into being.

I made a great find of one of the first patented cherry pitters on the trip I took down Route 20 to attend a baptism of a great-grandson in Dryden. It was a large pitter with four legs that could be screwed to a table or board, and it was patented Nov. 17, 1863. The one I found was dated May 15, 1866. It was made of cast iron and heavily tinned or “japanned.” It turned with a crank and could be adjusted for different size cherries. Not made in China, almost 150 years old and still usable.

I never set a goal of collecting wooden planes — those devices used to shape and smooth wooden items by the use of a small metal blade in a wooden holder. There are hundreds of them in all shapes and sizes, so I chose to include just a few examples in my Adirondack tool collection. On this trip, I acquired one “Jack plane,” a large, heavy, wood running plane, and a “groove plane.”

A three-pronged wooden grain fork, aka a pitch fork, handmade by some early farmer, was another good find. It will join my handmade wooden hay rakes and wooden grain shovels. These old handmade wooden tools are works of art. And these same designs are still used, although they make use of steel in today’s models.

Old tools have their stories to tell. “Pop! Goes the Weasel” is one of interest. I bought a “weasel,” not the one that lives in the wild, but the one that was part of the early households. You remember the old song: “A penny for a spool of thread, A penny for a needle. That’s the way the money goes, ‘Pop!’ goes the weasel. Every night when I go out, The monkey’s on the table, take a stick and knock it off. Pop! goes the weasel.”

Or, “Round and round the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey stopped to pull up his socks, and Pop! goes the weasel.”

Although there are many versions of the song and opinions about why it was written, in my estimation, it referred to the clicking sound made by the counter on the spinning tool used to measure and wind yarn. Some say it got its start in the 1700s, when yarn-winders were referred to as “weasels” or “niddy-noddys,” while others trace the origin to around 1850. It is an untold story that is with us today in many versions. My yarn winder find was another welcomed addition to the old tool collection; it is in good shape and one of the better examples of the tool. I also have another more rustic model that has turned grey with age that came down through our families.

On the trip down the byway, I attended a flea market and made another unusual find. It is interesting that when you think you have seen every old tool, another appears. I purchased an unused “Decker’s Improved Dr. Miller Animal Marker and Pig Snout Cutter,” still in its original box.

According to my veterinarian grandson-in-law, the tool was used to discourage rooting behaviors. In the early days, the pigs would root around in their outside pens and escape. The marker is heart-shaped and was used to mark the pigs’ ears to signify ownership and when they would be ready for market. Interestingly, the directions in the box called it a “Pig Snout Cutter,” while the outside called it a “Hog Snout Cutter.”

I’ll leave you with those tool “untold stories.” When does a “pig” become a “hog?” and will we ever learn the true story of “Pop! Goes the Weasel?”


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