Tools For Learnin
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.
Huelan has finished counting teeth and on his break has been working on making a top. He brings it to his father for advice, and Ken says, “That’s good work, but you see what happens when you spin it? It falls over because you’ve made the center of gravity too high by making the shaft so long. I think you’re going to need to find something to attach as a flywheel, right about here on it. First drill a quarter-inch hole right here and then bring me a flywheel, and we’ll figure out how to use a dowel to attach it.” The eight-year-old listens intently, and then hurries off on his mission.
“Job Cheesebrough, an English immigrant, actually bought the company in 1872,” Ken tells me. “He moved it here from another town in ’76 and built it to where he had whole boxcars of rakes going to France and Germany. He died in 1917; his son took over and then left it to charities. They had an overseer run it. They sold off outside assets as the business declined, but it never shut down. The last owner approached me in 1995 and said he was getting out and wanted me to buy it.
“It’s a part-time business for us. I make my living as a carpenter and contractor, and this loses some of that money every day. My goal is to make it viable again. I want to be a world producer of high-quality early American wooden goods. Our biggest market is with groundskeepers. They use our rakes at country clubs to dress the sand traps every morning. We make the best possible tool for that.”
He pauses by a retort, a big pressure cooker made in 1913 for bending wood to make the bows that support the connection of a wooden rake’s handle to its head. “Levi’s in charge of the retort and boiler and has been since he was 12. He was probably the only 12-year-old running a handfired boiler in America.
“Above all, this is a great place to raise kids. Last year we had to rebrick the boiler. It was horrible, dark and sooty inside; it’s 20 feet long and only three feet high. Yet when it was all done, Huelan was having such a good time playing in there he didn’t want to get out.”
Huelan, standing nearby, smiles his assent and offers to show me some of his soccer moves.