Paring job-specific tools from across the United States with archive photos of local industries where the tools were used creates a time-capsule in “Tools of the Trade – The Cron Collection” on display at the Ravalli County Museum until April 13.
Tamar Stanley, executive director of the museum, said the exhibit tells the story of inventing tools to make life simpler during an era when manufacturing was still unknown.
“In this era of disposable everything, we’re trying to communicate how in the past necessity was the mother of invention and you had to create your own tools to make your own product,” Stanley said. “You created your own tool in the field and used it until you died, then you passed it to your son and he used it because that’s what trade he took on. In those days, you followed in your father’s footsteps.”
Stanley said that today, if a tool breaks rather than fix it or create a new one, people simply go to the hardware store and purchase a new one. But a resurgence in making tools is taking place in America, after tinkering became a legitimate pastime again, especially in education.
“Currently, there is a ‘tool renaissance’ and there are all sorts of trades that are getting back to their roots about how you make a tool to fit your need,” Stanley said. “We enjoy making educational components that allow kids to be really hands-on and figure out how to build something. If it doesn’t work out - simply start again.”
Bitterroot Valley history is seen from a fresh angle – even though some of the tools are from outside of Montana.
Shoemaking tools are displayed next to a photo of a shoemaker in the Sanford Shoe Shop workshop by Bob Olson of Western News (the local newspaper at that time).
Old, heavy, metal irons are on display with a photo of Stevensville Steam – the first Bitter Root steam laundry after electric lights came in 1910.
The blacksmith tools are paired with a historical photo of the Corvallis Blacksmith Shop, circa 1900. The description says “Man using a 'traveler' to roll around the outside of a wooden wheel to determine its circumference in order to make the iron tire he will forge to fit correctly."
Sea tools (a ship’s lantern, a fishing real, and a sextant) are paired with a studio photo donated by Bitterroot resident Vi Strate of her family taken in front of a backdrop that looks like a docked ocean liner.
A photo of an automobile repair shop in old Hamilton is coupled with mechanic tools.
Timber, lumber, and building industry tools are displayed, as are with woodworking tools – with descriptions of how the tools were used. There are more than 60 types of planning tools, including a drawknife, a spoke shave, a chisel, and a gouge. Homemaking tools like washing machines and butter churns. Meat market tools, grocery store tools and farm tools also are on display.
A photo of the Hamilton post office in 1895 and the weighing tools they would have used is included too.
“It is a great collection of tools that made your life easier,” Stanley said.
The Cron Collection began with a buck saw.
Bob and Jane Cron met at Oregon State University and his career with the U.S. Forest Service gave him the opportunity to participate in forestry skill competitions – he was a buck saw champion.
Jane Cron said the collection “started by accident.”
“I remember his forestry days and the competitions and thought it would be great to have a buck saw as a memento of our beginning,” she said.
They found the perfect red saw at an old barn antique store in Vermont and that started 54 years of collecting antique tools as a hobby - wherever they traveled.
“It sort of snowballed on me because I bought things that appealed to me by how they were made – the ingenuity of thinking of a problem you needed to solve in the old days and creating an implement to do that,” Jane Cron said. “We kept finding things and found we were specializing in woodworking tools that can be fascinating, with so many movable parts to do a specific cut or groove. Then the farm tools started coming.”
The couple just kept finding tools, treasures of another era, with one rule - they had to have a basic understanding of how the tool was used. The tools were displayed in their home in seven display cases, in a coffee table with a glass top and drawer, on seven walls, and in the entry way.
“My husband would figure out how to arrange them and people would be fascinated,” Jane Cron said. “It was a process, a fun hobby of looking for them - many are from Montana. Some of them were from our family and friends. They didn’t have to be pristine, but they had to be clean with a unique use.”
Most of the tools came from the eastern United States. The others were collected in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, and Texas as the Crons traveled.
“The irony is that when I was young my mother really liked antiques and I absolutely hated them,” Jane Cron said. “I said that when I got married and had my own home I’m was not going to have antiques. I ended up collecting antique tools - never say never.”
The Crons retired to Montana and were museum supporters for many years when they decided to contribute their collection of 150 antique tools to the museum.
Along with being paired with local historical photos to make a beautiful display, they also created a Children’s Corner with “Tools of the Trade” hands-on activities.
“One of the things that Bob and Jane were so excited about is kids would be able to have hands-on activities using some of her tools,” Stanley said. “She wanted to see her tools in kid’s hands. Kids can come and measure, learn the difference between standard and metric tools or how to use a wrench. This lets them tinker and play with tools that are kid-friendly.”
Supervision is important, goggles are available, and classrooms of students can come learn about tools by holding and using them. For more information, tool books are available and the Children’s Corner can travel to classrooms.
Jane Cron said she is pleased with the museum’s efforts and display.
“It will endure that these artifacts will be around for a long time to come,” she said. “It will show both kids and grownups how these were used in the lives of those long gone and maybe help us remember our own ancestors and the difficulties they faced.”
Visit the “Tools of the Trade – The Cron Collection” on display at the Ravalli County Museum at 205 Bedford in Hamilton. For more information, call 363-3338 or online visit ravallimuseum.org.