clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Idaho man relishes wrench collection

MARSING, Idaho — If the woman who told Pete Rathbone to find a hobby had known what she was starting, she might have thought twice about it.

People collect everything from stamps to beer cans, but even Rathbone admits that his hobby may be just a little bit crazy.

He collects antique farm-implement wrenches.

At last count, he had just more than 4,000 of them.

He has wrenches from all over the world and travels the world to find them.

They're hanging on the walls of the farm museum he's created in a former tractor shed on his farm near Marsing — alphabetically arranged by the names of the companies that made them.

That would be about 700 companies.

He's even written a book about them: "The History of Oldtime Farm Implement Companies and the Wrenches They Issued."

Don't laugh. He printed 3,300 copies and has sold 3,200 of them. The response from other wrench junkies was such that he published a second volume and is working on Volume 3.

"Some things are finite, but wrench collecting isn't," he said. "It just keeps going. And it keeps me out of the pool hall."

He started his collection in 1985, after "a gal in an antique shop said I needed a hobby and that her husband collected alligator wrenches. Right then a light went on. Alligator wrenches made me think of farm wrenches. After that, I couldn't get enough of them."

He has wrenches from A, for Ann Arbor Agriculture Co., to Z, for Zook, a maker of Amish buggy wrenches.

"Don't you feel sorry for his sons?" joked his second wife, Sherry. "Someday they'll have to deal with all this. They'll just shake their heads."

"They'll have to decide which one wants the farm and which one wants the wrenches," her husband added. "The wrenches might be worth more."

Rathbone has wrenches small enough to fit in the palm of your hand with room left over and a behemoth he calls "a lethal weapon. You could kill somebody with this thing."

The most valuable: a "Bradley's Wonder" wrench worth about $2,800.

He gets them at auctions, buys them on the Internet and horse-trades with other collectors.

"Nobody's got them all, but everybody has one somebody else doesn't. I heard about a guy with a collection in British Columbia and called to ask if I could come see it. When I got there, he had about a thousand hubcaps. He didn't have that many wrenches, but he had one I wanted. He said he didn't sell, but when I offered him $50 for it, it came off the pegboard so fast it almost hit my toe."

The collection includes wrenches from eight countries, but most are from the American Midwest.

It seemed there was a foundry everywhere within a day's buggy ride, he said, "and they all made their own wrenches."

Rathbone, 75, is a lifelong collector. The son of a Los Angeles physician, he decided at an early age that he wanted to be a farmer.

"Dad was an internist in the middle of L.A., but I hated it there," he said. "I've always wanted to live on a farm."

He grew a squash in the family garden when he was 4. The first things he collected were agricultural experimental station bulletins. Later, he collected college catalogs, one of which led to Texas A&M University and an agricultural degree. He started his "R-Lucky Star Ranch" near Marsing in 1952 and grew alfalfa seed, barley seed and sugar beets until he retired in 1996.

You'd think that collecting 4,000 wrenches and writing books about them would be enough to keep him busy. You'd be wrong.

His museum also has what he says is the world's largest collection of sugar sacks, 360 of them from more than 25 countries. It has 60 tractor seats.

"Seat collectors are more serious than wrench collectors, especially the Brits. If a British seat comes up for sale in the U.S., they're here to buy it."

Wrenches are the museum's main attraction, but visitors also will see other farm tools, farming posters, a grist mill, corn sheller, tobacco transplanter, barbed-wire collection, toy farm machinery, a John Deere bicycle and more.

The most incongruous display: a Mexican doll collection.

"I've traveled a lot in Mexico, and I like their dolls," he matter-of-factly explained.

What makes a man collect so much stuff?

"You have to have something to keep you from dying on the vine," he said. "You can't just sit around and watch television all day."