Hard as nails

Oroville’s Bud Bolt ready to pass the torch—and his Antique Tool Museum—on to a younger generation

Bud Bolt has collected some 13,000 tools—and spoken about them—over the past half-century.

Bud Bolt has collected some 13,000 tools—and spoken about them—over the past half-century.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Event info:
Bud Bolt delivers his final talk at Bolt's Antique Tool Museum (1650 Broderick St., Oroville) at 10 a.m. Saturday (Feb. 17). Learn more at www.boltsantiquetools.com.

What’s the greatest advance in human history? Ask Bud Bolt, and you’ll get a quick answer: tools.

He came to that conclusion in 1963. Asked to present a talk to an industry group, Bolt—then a branch manager for the Snap-On brand, based out of Salt Lake City—researched not just the history of tools but also their impact on people’s lives.

“I was thoroughly convinced when I got finished that the tool was the most important man-made product on the planet,” he told the CN&R Tuesday morning (Feb. 13). “With tools, a human being can do anything, and without tools, we’re just another animal.”

Six years earlier, he began picking up the odd tool, here and there. That epiphany “is what got me hooked,” he continued, leading to a collection that’s grown to around 13,000 items, housed in a museum in Oroville he founded 12 years ago with his late wife, Laila, who passed in July. Together they’d traveled the country, sifting through bins at swap meets, second-hand stores and roadside stops.

“I used to kid her that she could squish a black widow spider or kick a mouse out of its nest with the best of them,” Bolt said, chuckling. “The rowdier, the junkier the place, the better, because that’s where you found the treasures.”

Their haul wound up in Bolt’s Antique Tool Museum—initially located in the three-car garage of their home on Mountain View Drive (just beyond city limits), now on Broderick Street (just north of downtown). A sign out front indicates 12,000 tools inside; Bolt acknowledged it’s time for his daughter, Patty, to affix an update.

The museum is a family affair: His three sons, daughter-in-law and a grandson also work to keep the place open. His middle son, Steven, in particular, has a key responsibility, which he’ll assume solely after this weekend.

Bolt, who’s been speaking publicly for the better part of 65 years, will make his final presentation at the museum Saturday morning. He’ll speak about the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, which he lived through as a boy in southern Nebraska. Few witnesses remain.

Bolt turns 91 in May. Though the force of his deep voice and pace of his cane-guided gait may suggest otherwise, “I’m not holding up as well as I did 40 years ago,” he said. “The time has come where I’ve got to get these presentations turned over to the younger generation.”

He’s presented a talk titled “The Evolution of Tools” for 50 years, and “The Dust Bowl” at least 30. He’s turning both over to Steven but will remain a part of the latter talk via DVD footage of his first-hand account, as that’s something his son cannot replicate.

Born in 1927, the youngest of nine, Bolt was a child when the elements conspired to desiccate the Great Plains. While countless families headed over the Rockies—including to Butte County—to escape the devastation, his stayed.

“My parents had lost everything, they were penniless, but they had no place to go, no transportation to get there and no means of support,” he explained. “So they just stuck it out—as a lot of people did.”

In the Marines at the end of World War II, Bolt got stationed in Vallejo, where he met Laila. They were married 68 years, living the past 45 in Oroville.

The Bolts donated their collection to the city in 2006. Since, the museum has drawn around 16,000 visitors—its website, more than 6.85 million hits, from across the globe.

“It’s a great asset to the city of Oroville,” Donald Rust, acting city administrator, said by phone. “It’s amazing how much they impact other people’s lives and the interest that’s generated from that little tin shack, so to speak, by the levee.”

Bolt may be reducing his involvement, but he’s looking to his family to carry on his legacy. He started an investment fund—with three grandchildren as trustees—to benefit the museum. Rust said this fund is an offshoot of Bolt’s “brainchild”: a foundation to support all Oroville museums, which the city is vetting with the federal government.

“He’s one of the sweetest souls that I know,” Rust said. “He’s a great person, a very honorable person; he’s tried to do right by the city. The problem is the city has just run out of money before he could do what he wanted to do; but he’s leaving it in the capable hands of his adult children.”