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Tools For Learnin

Spring 1998 | Volume 13 |  Issue 4

NEXT, LOAD SOME 66-INCH HANDEES AND get them spotted and bored and rolled,” Ken VanTol says to his shop foreman, who replies with a couple of businesslike questions about the job. “Then we need 300 teeth.” VanTol turns to his other workers. “You guys are going to count teeth. And when you’re done, you’ll take your break.”

The foreman is VanTol’s son Levi, who is 14; the other workers are his younger children, led by Claire, 12, plus a couple of cousins visiting for the day. The machinery they’ll be working with was almost all in place by 1880.

Ken VanTol runs the Cheesebrough Handle Factory, maker of wooden rakes, pitchforks, and clothes-drying racks since 1872, in the small town of Freeport, Michigan. He and his wire, Fat, are homeschooling their children, and their jobs in the factory, which is more a living museum of early American industry than an industrial plant, are part of their education. “The biggest reason we took this over was for raising the family,” he says. “That and the history, which I love. We treat the kids as adults, with true respect and responsibilities, and they like it and gain real confidence.” The evidence supports this. The three of their seven children most in evidence today—Levi, Claire, and Huelan, who is eight—are all extremely articulate and calmly good-natured. They all come across as several years older than their ages.

A tour through the factory—a big two-story barnlike old wooden shed—is a tour through the Industrial Revolution. Ken leads me to what looks like an ancient butcher’s block with a round blade rising from the middle and explains, “This saw is from before the Civil War. We use it very rarely.

“Here’s a cutoff machine with a belt drive, from after the war. Look at that wood pulley. It could be dangerous; you had to keep the wood oiled because it could get hot from friction and you couldn’t shut it off. But this next machine over here”—he walks across the broad pine floor planks—“which is a little later, has a slip drive for the belt, so you can pull it out of gear.” He switches on an electric motor—an isolated incursion from the twentieth century—that runs the overhead shafts and belts, and domes the end of a handle on a “chucker” mounted on a work-polished frame.

We move on to a 1903 “tooth machine” of iron and steel that converts a square-sided length of wood into four rake teeth ready to be snapped apart. It’s absolutely modern next to another extremely homemade-looking tooth machine put together in 1876 or so by Job Cheesebrough, the factory’s builder.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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