Farm Tools as Family Heirlooms? You Bet

Don't discount the idea of heirloom tools. Some old tools I recently found on a family property are going back into service, and I find them just as special and meaningful as any other type of heirlooms.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson

Heirloom vegetables, heirloom fruit trees, family heirlooms—the term “heirloom” gets tossed around with some frequency, typically in regard to something old and valuable. Heirloom plants are prized for their historic, proven genetics. Family heirlooms are items passed down from generation to generation until they take on an aura of historical significance, regardless of whether they have any monetary value.

You might not consider tools as items that fall into the category of “family heirlooms,” but for hobby farmers and those who appreciate the quality of good tools, maybe the notion isn’t so far-fetched. In fact, I would argue that heirloom tools can be just as special—if not more so—as any other type of heirlooms, be they objects or plants. Allow me to explain.

Recently, I visited the small farm where my grandparents spent their summers. It’s been years since Grandpa (who gave our John Deere Model 40 its nickname “Little Mo”) lived in the small farmhouse on the hill, but the farm is still in the family, and during my visit I aimed to transplant a few small lilac bushes to propagate on my own farm.

While there, I also walked into Grandpa’s tool shed, which is pretty much just how he left it. There’s still a rope to keep the door from opening too wide, while inside, gathering dust, are a few empty gas cans, a pile of screws … and a handful of old tools.

I’ve long been a big fan of hand saws—I’ve written about them extensively in the past—and hanging on a nail in the tool shed I saw a long, fine-toothed saw that still looked reasonably sharp despite its age. I carefully removed it from the wall, realizing that I was probably the first to touch it since Grandpa hung it there years ago. So I wiped off the cobwebs.

Also in the tool shed was a pitchfork with four tines; it was old, but the tines were straight, and it looked ready for a busy summer of garden work after years of sitting in the shed with the saw.

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It’s hard to say where these tools came from—it’s possible that Grandpa “borrowed” them from us at some point in the past—but I certainly know where the tools are going. They’re coming back to my farm, where they’ll get cleaned up and put back into service. And whenever I’m pruning trees or turning over sod, I can look down at the tools in my hand—Grandpa’s tools—and be reminded of those summer days when he would build a clothesline, dig a drainage ditch or simply relax with the family and play cards while everyone laughed at his jokes.

Thanks for the tools, Grandpa. Heirloom tools, I guess, passed on to a new generation. That’s pretty special, isn’t it?

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