EASTHAM — As shops and galleries all around scramble to greet the first wave of the summer season, volunteers inside the Chester Ranlett Tool Museum here are doing their part to prepare one of the more peculiar collections on the Outer Cape for visitors.
Mark Herman, curator of what he believes is the only tool museum on Cape Cod, asked a reporter to excuse the appearance of the place on a sunny day last week. “We’re just beginning to get all our displays cleaned off and set up,” he said as he and two volunteers stood elbow-deep in piles of gadgets, searching out duplicates to weed out before opening day in July.
The team’s pace frequently stuttered as Herman and docents Joe Mistretta and Bill Hoctor unearthed one item or another that piqued their curiosities.
Herman showed off one of his favorite carpentry gizmos, a 19th-century treadle jigsaw. As he worked the pedal, a pair of large wheels were activated, and the saw blade began to move. Its operation is similar to that of early sewing machines.
There was talk of refurbishing the museum’s latest acquisitions, which last week included two dolly carts from Brackett’s General Store.
The collection reflects the economic history of Eastham. Wooden scoops of various sizes, used to pick cranberries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at the town’s many bogs, line one wall, while a large sorter stands nearby. The town’s prosperous asparagus farms, including one on the property where the museum now stands, put asparagus bunchers to use. The museum has them now. And tacked up near the ceiling are axes, hand saws, and ice tongs used by 19th-century workers who cut ice from local ponds to sell to residents and businesses who needed it to keep perishable foods cold.
Many of the oldest tools on display are one-of-a-kind creations, each designed to handle a specific task. “People would see a job that was repetitive,” Mistretta said, “and they would make a tool to do it.” These specialty items were then fashioned by the local blacksmith.
Tucked into a corner of the museum is a working forge. It “operates at the whim of the blacksmith,” says the museum’s website. Herman says several artisans come to demonstrate the forge during the summer months.
Sometimes Herman fires it up and melts pewter, which he then pours into molds in the shape of various farm animals, toy soldiers, and spoons, using antique molds. The finished pieces are sold in the historical museum’s gift shop.
Tools were always part of the town’s collection, which initially operated on the Old Schoolhouse property. But in 1989 Chester Ranlett, a longtime member and officer in the Eastham Historical Society, founded the Ranlett Tool Museum in its current location and donated much of his personal tool collection to the cause. According to his obituary, Ranlett served as curator until his death in 2008.
After that, Herman took the helm. The building the tool museum occupies was donated to the town by his wife Pam Gill’s family — her grandparents were Raymond and Verena Daley, who purchased the Swift brothers’ 1741 house in 1939 and helped restore it to its original condition. They gave the Swift-Daley House to the town’s historical society in 1974. What’s now the tool museum is a newer building that had been a carpentry shop with a bay for the family car. “I was a shop teacher and a car guy,” said Herman.
The purpose of a tool or gadget is not always obvious even to the experts who put in hours at the museum. Herman has the internet to help him identify mystery tools, but often it’s a museum visitor who recognizes a tool’s use. It’s always exciting when an item can graduate from the “whatsit basket,” where tools with unknown uses are kept, to the display shelves.
The museum is planning to hold “Tool Tuesdays” in July and August — afternoons when docents will show visitors how various gadgets work. There will be a blacksmith at the forge, and experts will be on hand to help figure out the oddball items people bring in and appraise old tools.
The museum does take donations of old tools. And while it’s true that means they come into “a lot of old wrenches,” Herman said, they also score important artifacts. “We are always looking for tools for our collection,” he said. “There are a million things you might wish for. A No. 1 Stanley hand plane would be nice.”
One reason the place is “turned upside down right now,” Herman said, is that he and other volunteers are rooting out items like small wrenches that are not needed for the collection but might be just the thing for the historical society’s annual white elephant sale on Sunday. “They make nice paperweights,” he said.
The event: The Eastham Historical Society’s plant, tool, and white elephant sale
The time: Sunday, June 4, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; rain date June 11
The place: On the grounds of the Swift-Daley House, 2375 State Hwy., Eastham
The cost: Free