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Carpenter's Tool Chest

Tool chest used by carpenter Charles Colburn of Wonewoc, Wisconsin, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
(Museum object #2004.137.1-248)

Who built Wisconsin? If by "built" we mean transforming the aboriginal landscape of Wisconsin into today's pattern of farms, towns, and cities, the answer includes thousands of carpenters and builders, most of them known only to family and friends. One of these was Charles Nelson Colburn (1851-1939), who used the tools in the chest featured here to build structures that shaped his adopted community of Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

Colburn's family was part of the Yankee migration that helped settle Wisconsin in mid-19th century. Charles's parents, Henry and Harriet Colburn, moved to Evansville, Wisconsin from New England in 1854, when Charles was three years old. After serving in the Civil War, Henry relocated his family to Monroe County, possibly near Ontario. In 1873 Charles Colburn married Abigail Kilby Alcott of Wonewoc, a small town in Juneau County nestled between unglaciated bluffs on the east and the Baraboo River on the west. In 1875 Charles's parents arrived in Wonewoc, where Henry (who had previously been a shoemaker) became a farmer, and Charles embarked on a career as a carpenter.

By 1875, Wonewoc no longer resembled the tiny lumbering settlement in the woods it had been a generation earlier. The arrival of the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1872 ignited a burst of development and transformed the town into a small commercial center that serviced a growing number of surrounding farms.

By the time Charles Colburn arrived in Wonewoc, balloon frame construction was well on its way to becoming the standard construction technique for Midwestern houses. The balloon frame method emerged in Chicago in the 1830s, and many variants appeared throughout the region in succeeding decades. The variants all shared the use of relatively light timbers knitted into a sturdy whole by large quantities of iron nails.

The mass production of wire nails in the 1870s and the ready availability of milled, dimensioned (2x4, 2x6, etc.) lumber boosted the new approach, which was faster, lighter, and cheaper than traditional frame building and required less skilled workmanship. It was also more flexible, adaptable, and repairable – in other words, ideal for growing frontier communities. Compared to their predecessors, balloon frame carpenters increasingly assembled houses from such pre-made components as windows, doors, and moldings shipped in from architectural milling centers like Oshkosh and elsewhere.

Though balloon frame assembly techniques were simpler, a good builder still needed to accurately estimate quantities and dimensions of materials needed; control assembly sequences and details to maximize the structure's strength, comfort and fire resistance; figure and cut angles for rafters and stairs; and adapt the basic technique to different plans and functions. House plans regularly appeared in agricultural journals and pattern books, but most builders rarely worked from blueprints, instead mastering the basic approaches, fastening systems, and the versatile 16-inch module of balloon frame construction on their own.

Charles Colburn's chest contains tools that are consistent with a balloon frame construction, including several types of squares, rulers, marking gauges, and saws; a level, chalk line and several plumb bobs; a clapboard marker and gauges, three trim hammers, a lathing hatchet and a nail puller. Conspicuously absent, though, is a large framing hammer. Such a tool would have been essential to the carpenter's trade, but might also have been most subject to scavenging by a subsequent owner of the chest.

Colburn's chest also contains more than 200 other tools, primarily for woodworking, though other trades are also represented. Most of the tools were commercially manufactured, but a few were home-made. Maker's names and patent dates indicate that the oldest tools were made in the 1870s, but the majority date to 1900-1910.

In a sense, we know Charles primarily through his tools. A 1976 sketch of Wonewoc includes this passing reference: "the next house south … was built by Charles Colburn, who built many of the houses nearabouts, and much of the cabinetry within them." Though acknowledging his "honorable part" in the reconstruction of its building, Colburn's 1939 obituary notes only that he was a long-time janitor for the Methodist Church. Colburn's tools, however, suggest a more skilled trade. While most of them are for general carpentry, there are a few specialty tools as well, like a set of trammel points, a mortising gauge, the plow plane shown at left, and a Stanley side rabbet plane (which was used to trim or widen rabbets and dovetail grooves).

The chest itself may also provide clues about Colburn's craftsmanship. While we don't know who made the chest, it was common for cabinetmakers to build their own. This one is a precise piece of work. It features sides made of 20-inch wide pine boards with rabbeted corners; a frame and raised panel lid with beaded edges; metal-clad corners throughout; decorative ogee-and-bead molding around the base; heavy-duty hardware; and rollers on the bottom. Inside, there is an array of removable mahogany boxes, trays and caddies. "[C.N.] COLBURN" is stenciled in faded black on the lid. If Charles did, indeed, make this chest himself, he was a talented cabinetmaker as well as house builder.

Though they have been updated and modified, several houses built by Charles Colburn still survive in Wonewoc. These houses, along with the tools carefully preserved by Charles's daughter, grandson, and great-grandson, are the final testament to one of the many settlers who helped build Wisconsin.

[Sources: Peterson, Fred W. Homes in the Heartland: Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992); Hanold, Darrel. "A Romp Around the Original Plat" in The Wonewoc Review (Wonewoc, Wisconsin, 1976).]


Posted on November 15, 2007

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  • Business, Technology, & Labor
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