God’s tool box
Oroville hand-tool museum is the biggest in the country
It’s listed on Smithsonian magazine’s Web site as “the largest known documented collection of hand tools in the United States.” It was featured in the November 2007 issue of This Old House magazine. Real Simple magazine has a story coming out about it this month. Approximately 6,000 people from around the United States and the world have visited since it opened in May 2006.
You’d never guess by looking at Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum—housed in what amounts to a glorified, oversized metal shed on a concrete slab down by the river in Oroville—that it would be a place of such fame.
Conceived of and run by a man with the all-too-fitting name of Bud Bolt and his “bride of 60 years,” Laila, Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum—just down the street from the Chinese Temple—is truly amazing. No other word will do.
The collection of tools, amassed by Bolt and his wife over the past 50-plus years, often while “junkin'” at flea markets and yard sales all over the United States, totals 8,100 pieces, and features 1,500 different brands. Standing white boards making up aisle after curving aisle are loaded with monkey wrenches, blacksmithing tools, buggy wrenches, spud wrenches, amputation tools, alligator wrenches, dinglestocks, snath wrenches, giant open-end railroad wrenches, mining, farm, logging and household tools (including a teeny-tiny hand mixer) and a “barrel bung nut wrench” (to name but a smidgeon of what Bolt has on display). All are meticulously labeled by brand and date. The museum literally encompasses the history of just about every tool that mankind has ever created.
Bolt started in the tool business when he became a Snap-on tools dealer in 1952. (On the wall, there’s a framed black-and-white photo of a dapper young Bolt, dressed in all-white, standing proudly next to his Snap-on delivery van on his first day of work.)
He officially retired 30 years ago, but the feisty, knowledgeable and funny 82-year-old who epitomizes the word “character” has remained eyeball-deep in the world of tools—a world for which he has an intense passion and a beyond-encyclopedic knowledge. It seems since he was given the name “Bolt,” he decided to run with it.
Bolt is more than happy to give visitors a tour of the museum. The first stop is the “Tool Time Line,” which begins with “the stone” of more than 4,000 years ago, then moves on to the tong, the rasp and the shear of 400 B.C. and finally ends with a series of wrench types, most notably the monkey wrench, invented in 1835, which Bolt describes as “the most important single manmade product ever made.”
From there, it’s display after display, starting at Area A, Bolt’s favorite, which honors the blacksmith, “the most important person in every settlement,” in early America.
“There’s a thousand stories in here,” said the gregarious Bolt as he led the way through his kingdom of tools, “but I’ve never told over 900 at any one time, so don’t get panicky.”
Near Area C—a massive display of monkey wrenches of all brands, ages and sizes—sits Bolt’s recently acquired barbed-wire collection, donated by a man from Arizona named Kenneth Lenke who shipped the large, painstakingly tagged and documented collection to him for free. These days, Bolt doesn’t have to go looking for additions to his museum—things come to him.
“This will be the best barbed-wire collection on the West Coast, and one of only five in the world,” said Bolt happily of the installation-in-progress. “This is all new to us. We’ve never been barbed-wire collectors before.”
An interesting chart listing 2,600 makes of car—with names like Whippet, American Populaire, Boston High Wheel and the Tally Ho—is on the wall near an equally interesting display of 1930s hubcap wrenches (used to remove screw-on hubcaps, the precursors to pressed-on dustcaps, as Bolt will tell you), which is near a long row of antique blow torches, also recently donated to the museum. Right below the blow torches, well, you get it …
It’s 900 stories about 8,100 tools for two bucks—an amazingly good deal.