A boring machine that isn’t boring

In the two previous articles, we discussed a shoemaker’s bench and a pair of worsted combs, all made by Brother Richard Woodrow. In this post we present a tool – a beam auger – that he made and used in his woodworking at the Center Family at Mount Lebanon.

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Beam Auger, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2009.1.1. Matthew Kroening, photographer

On April 13, 1850, a Shaker journalist noted in the Center Family journal: “R[ichard] B. W[oodrow] engaged something about building a boring machine &c.” Boring machines, or beam augers, were essential tools for framing heavy timber buildings. The various beams, posts, girts, rafter plates, sills, etc. in a building’s timber frame are connected using mortise and tenon joints – basically square (or most often rectangular) pegs fit into square (or rectangular) holes. Mortises – the holes – were made by drilling a series of one-and-one-half to two-inch round holes in a beam with a large auger. The holes were then fashioned into a rectangle with chisels to make them ready to receive the tenon. The tenon was made to fit in its corresponding mortise by shaping the end of a beam using saws and chisels. In a large building such as a Shaker barn, hundreds of such joints might be required. In the early 1850s, Brother Richard was faced with several timber framing projects – the largest of which was to be a huge new cow barn for the family’s herd. This project could have been the motivation for him to build a new beam auger.

Using the beam auger was pretty straightforward. Once the position for a mortise was marked on the beam, the tool was placed on the beam with the auger bit at one end of the marked out mortise. The timber-framer sat on the leather seat of the beam auger and turned the handles. On Brother Richard’s machine, the two-inch diameter twisted auger bit automatically dug into the beam – advancing deeper and deeper until it reached a pre-set depth at which time, without changing the direction the handles were being turned, the auger bit automatically reversed rotation and withdrew from the beam, returning to its original position. The operator then slid the machine to position the auger bit at the other end of the marked-out mortise and bored another hole. The auger was then positioned several more times to remove as much of wood between the first two holes as possible.  With some cleaning up with a chisel the mortise was ready for its tenon. To watch a short demonstration of a commercially made beam auger being used, try this one-minute YouTube demonstration made at a timber framing class at the Maplewood Center for Common Craft in Greenwich, New York.

Brother Richard’s beam auger is more mechanically complex than most commercially made examples. Whether Woodrow was copying some mechanism he had seen elsewhere or whether the reversing feature and pre-set depth adjustment were his own inventions has not been determined. (We welcome comments from any students of mid-19th century beam augers.) Brother Richard stamped the date “1851” and his initials “R. W.” on both metal handles. Unlike the dated worsted combs, which he had no intention of using himself, he may have added his initials to this tool in the tradesmen’s tradition of identifying the tool as the one he used.

The beam auger was purchased locally in New Lebanon, New York, by Donald Carpentier, the founder of Eastfield Village, a private teaching museum in East Nassau, New York. Don consigned the auger to Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 2008 and it was purchased at auction by the Shaker Museum.

Although this concludes our three-part discussion about Brother Richard Woodrow and three objects in the Museum’s collection made by him, it is likely he will reappear in a later posting since there are a few more items in the collection associated with his Shaker life and work.


Combing and carding wool: A most persnickety operation

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Pair of Worsted Combs, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1851, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.28.1 and 1950.32.1.

This article continues our last posting on Brother Richard Bushnell Woodrow of the Center Family Shakers at Mount Lebanon, New York. Here we describe a pair of worsted combs he made for the sisters in his family.

The processing of wool for spinning is usually done in two ways – combing and carding. Combing wool is the earlier of the two methods and is done to removes short fibers while aligning the long fibers. The result of combing wool is similar to combing one’s hair when the goal is to have each hair parallel to the other. Combed wool, when spun, produces a yarn with fibers that lay close to each other. The yarn is therefore smoother, stronger, and harder and produces a fabric that is cooler to wear. This fabric is ideal for men’s or women’s pants and jackets. Carding wool, in contrast, does not remove the short fibers but rather, tangles them – sort of like teasing hair – to produce a softer fluffy yarn that traps some air between the fibers. This woolen yarn retains strength from the longer fibers being twisted together, but is also soft and warm. It is perfect for woven winter coats and knit sweaters, socks, and gloves.

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Pair of Worsted Combs (detail of date), Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1851, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1950.28.1 and 1950.32.1.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon has several pairs of Shaker worsted combs in its collection. The pair presented here is typical of worsted combs made for hundreds of years. This pair, and another nearly identical pair, appears to have been made by Brother Richard B. Woodrow in 1851. A Shaker journalist recorded this entry in the Center Family Journal on May 14, 1851: “Richard [Woodrow] engaged about making some new combs for the sisters to comb with this season &c.” Each of the pair of combs has the date “1851” stamped in the brass formed around the head of the combs. These combs can be described as “two pitch” combs – two pitch describing the number of rows of tines (historically called “broitches”) mounted in the head of the comb – with eleven inch tines. Combs vary from two to eight pitch with broitches as long as twelve inches. The number of rows of tines selected by a worsted comber depended on the type of wool that was being combed. These combs were acquired directly from the Church Family Shakers by Museum founder, John S. Williams, Sr., prior to 1950. At that point the remaining members of the Church Family were in residence in Ann Lee Cottage at the Center Family where Brother Richard had lived.

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Postcard (20th century re-enactment of hand wool combing in late 18th century Calder valley, at Bankfield Museum, Halifax), Bankfield Museum, Halifax, England, Document ID: 100095 Library ID: 34559582.

Wool combing has a fascinating history and language. Both men and women were employed as combers. First the tines were heated on a stove; the heat made it easier for the tines to move through oily wool without tearing or breaking the fibers. The comb was mounted on a “pad” by inserting the pad’s small iron pins in the comb’s two “pad points” – one on the side of the handle and one in its end. With its tines pointing up, its handle away from the comber, the comber “lashed” on the proper amount of wool. As much of the wool as possible was put on the side of the comb opposite the handle. Once the wool was lashed on, the comb was turned on the pad with its tines horizontal to the floor. The comber then used the second heated comb to “jig” or “fetch off” the wool on the mounted comb to the free comb by using a controlled circular chopping motion – the free comb’s tines pulling though the wool  perpendicular to the tines on the mounted comb. Once jigged, the combs were switched and the process repeated until the wool was sufficiently combed – each time removing the remaining short fibers (the “noils”) and saving them to be carded. The combs were re-heated as needed, even with the wool on. Once combed sufficiently, the wool was moved to the mid-point of the tines and the comber began “drawing off the sliver.” This process pulled the fibers off the tines in a prescribed way until all but the shortest fibers were left on the tines. The sliver, which should be four feet long, was laid out on a bench for evaluation and the removal of any “neps,” or foreign matter. A number of slivers were combined and rolled into a ball called a “top” and passed on to the spinners. This is the very short version of a most persnickety operation.  [Source: Enid Anderson’s The Spinner’s Encyclopedia (1987).]

Apostasy and carpentry: The tale of a shoemaker’s bench

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Shoemaker’s Bench, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12839.1.

As shoemakers’ benches go, this Shaker example is a luxury version of a basic workbench. It has ample drawers for tools and a back rest and padded leather seat. Many of these benches only have trays fastened to the bench top to hold tacks, nails, and shoe pegs, with maybe a single drawer slung underneath for tools. The seat is usually carved into the top of the bench without much or any padding. Shoemakers sat low on their benches as they used their laps for much of their work – the knees being a suitable vise for holding something as irregularly shaped as a shoe or boot.

The quality of this bench speaks to why its proper name is a shoemaker’s bench rather than a “cobbler’s bench.” Although the terms shoemaker and cobbler are now used interchangeably, historically a shoemaker refered to the trained tradesperson who made shoes and boots, whereas a cobbler, as Webster informed people in his dictionary (1900 edition), was “A mender of shoes … a clumsy workman.”  This is much like what has happened to the differentiation between a tinsmith and a tinker – the tinsmith being the maker of tin ware and the tinker “the itinerant mender of domestic tin utensils … a clumsy workman; a botcher.” That being cleared up, this shoemaker’s bench has more to tell us about the Shakers than that they were well-shod by trained artisans.

On the bottom of one of the small drawers is a faint and partly obliterated inscription that appears once to have clearly read, “Dec. 1st 18__ Made by Richard B. Woodrow.” Richard Bushnell Woodrow was a member of the Second Order of Mount Lebanon’s Church Family (now referred to as the Center Family). He was born March 5, 1828 in Philadelphia. His mother Sarah Woodrow was a member of an experimental community in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That community was founded in 1826 as the “Friendly Association of Mutual Interest” by as many as 300 followers of the English social reformer, Robert Owen. The community’s first members settled in the house that had been George Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge. They wrote a constitution that committed members to industrious work and to share equally in the profits of that work. They had a commitment to equality between men and women. The experiment did not make it through the first year as a result of conflict between the Association members and the surrounding communities. As members looked for another opportunity to live in, some found their way to the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Eventually as many as 30 of them came to live at Mount Lebanon’s North Family. Shakers such as John and Levi Shaw; John, Deborah, and Anna Dodgson; Abel, Israel, Sarah, and Jane Knight; Tabitha and Maria Lapsley; George Wickersham; Clawson Middleton; and Sarah Woodrow, satisfied with their new home, lived out their lives as Shakers, most of them as stalwarts of the North Family.

Three-year-old Richard came with his then twenty-four-old mother and was eventually placed in the children’s order at the Center Family as soon as he could be separated from his mother. At age 11, in an accounting of membership in the Church and Center families, he is listed among the boys at the Center Family. At age 21 he is listed among the brothers as a 5 foot 10 inch tall carpenter and mill-wright.  Brother Richard’s work was varied but generally of a mechanical nature.  In 1848 and 1849, he set up a foot-powered lathe, repaired the family’s waterwheel, built a wash-mill, put up eave troughs, made a “great cask,” framed the dairy house, laid floors; made portable bedsteads, a yarn stretcher, and a seeder for beet seeds; tore down the family’s old mill and framed a new one “pretty much alone.” In October, 1849 the Lebanon Shakers were confronted with a lack of space in their main graveyard. They decided to use an earlier graveyard to compensate. In doing so they dug up the bones of Father Joseph Meacham to reposition his grave. Brother Richard made the coffin to receive his bones for the re-interment.  This kind of work continued steadily until February 2, 1853 when “Warren Chase, Richard Woodrow, Louisa S[ears] and Fanny Crocker conclude[d] to forsake their Father’s house & seek asylum in some other region.” This was not Richard’s first decision to leave Shaker life. At age eighteen he had been one of eight young brothers and sisters who departed the Center Family in one of the most devastating rebellions the Shakers ever experienced. Unlike the other seven who left, Richard returned less than a month later, begging a new privilege, “after having humbly acknowledged his mistake in having left.”

Richard’s loss was devastating to the family. It was noted in a journalist’s commentary: “Richard was their principal carpenter & Joiner there, and left a heavy & important job, a large barn, partly framed, & has left no regular draft of it; and someone will have a hard task to get a clear idea of it, and doubtless the Chh will be obliged to hire it done.” Just prior to leaving Richard had completed making the 300 diagonal braces that were to be used in the new dairy barn. Louisa Sears and Fanny Crocker were caretakers of the young girls – another difficult job to fill. Warren, Richard, and Fanny had all lived together since childhood.

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Photograph (cropped), Center Family Barn (1853), Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1910, James Irving, Photographer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2000.21522.1. This is the barn that Richard Woodrow was in charge of framing when he left the Shakers.

Richard’s life in the world is sketchily documented. It appears that he and Louisa (or Loiza) Sears married in Burlington Township, New Jersey two days after leaving the Shakers. [Burlington County, NJ, Marriage Records]  Although  the particular circumstances and not, at present, known, Louisa Woodrow died on July 2, 1857 in Gloucester, New Jersey – according to recorded “New Jersey, Deaths, 1670-1988.” Two years after Louisa’s death, Richard married Elizabeth M. Paul in Clarksboro, New Jersey. They had two children, Mary L. Woodrow, born in 1863, and Howard H. Woodrow, born in 1868. Around this time Richard moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a carpenter and eventually managed a hardware store – jobs fitting of his Shaker training. Richard Woodrow died in the city of his birth on March 6, 1909 having lost Elizabeth five years earlier. They are both buried in the Mickleton Friend’s Burial Bround, Upper Greenwich, New Jersey, suggesting that he and Elizabeth were Quakers.

Although Richard’s post-Shaker life is certainly not completely documented, it is rare that it is possible to trace the lives of those leaving the Shakers to see how their Shaker life may have informed the remainder of their lives.

The shoemaker’s  bench was purchased August 5, 1961 at an auction of Shaker items collected from the Church and Center families at Mount Lebanon and owned by Darrow School. The auction provided funds to aid in the conversion of the Shakers’ 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library.

There is more to this story. The shoemaker’s bench is only one a half-dozen objects in the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon that appears to be connected to the life and work of Richard Bushnell Woodrow. The rest of these objects will be discussed is subsequent articles in this blog.