Orphan or Outcast...or Both!

Tom had been waiting

Fig. 1

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35901 WCR 31, Eaton, Colorado 80615

Wouldn't you think among all the collectors and collectibles that one of the most important contraptions of modern times would have been given its proper due?

The washing machine, especially the powered one, is almost universally shunned by antique buyers and sellers. The WMCA (Washing Machine Collectors of America) has yet to be founded, since there aren't enough collectors to properly fill the office positions, and there is definitely no periodical that proudly features restored washing machines in full color on both its front and back covers.

Nonetheless, if you will allow me, I'd like to let you in on the fun and fascination of the hobby of washing machine collecting. About half the machines in our collection have come from within a hundred mile radius of our home west of Eaton. The others, from as far away as Maine, have been brought back via a trailer (with a capacity of 15-18 machines) behind our camper. If you've ever seen what you thought to be a traveling junk yard, that was us. The 18-wheelers have joked with us on their CB's about our being Gypsies. Three years ago, we even brought four machines back from a visit with our son who lives in Australia. First time the customs agents, with more than a few raised eyebrows, had ever seen washing machines used as suitcases. Didn't cost us an extra cent by checking them onto the airplane that way. Each of our more than 300 machines has its own story, some more interesting than others, and many that we fondly remember, just as the one to follow.

On our most recent hunting safari, all through Missouri, we ran into Tom Coffey in his unique hardware store that houses his extensive collection of clocks and kerosene lamps. It seems that Tom, who celebrates his 86th birthday in February, was a Maytag dealer and repairman, beginning over a half century ago. After an hour's chat with Tom and after hearing about his exploits as a repairman (he just didn't sit around like the guy on TV) and as a one-man 'Crabgrass' band, he gifted me a machine. The gift had two strings attached: 1) that I would buy a copy of his recently recorded audio tape and, 2) that I cut down the unwanted tree that had been growing up through the framework of the machine, Fig. 1. In retrospect, I think Tom had been waiting for someone like me, just to get that little chore done. After getting the machine out, and the roots holding the base, Tom hiked us up to his house where, in his 'Fibber McGee's' shed, he had two more machines. He agreed that I could buy these if I would unload the mountain of stuff on top of them. While I was trying to develop a hernia to get at the machines, Tom came with his Cajun accordion and stool, and proceeded to serenade Barbara (my trusty washing machine hunting companion, and wife of 40 years) and me with renditions of his 'Crabgrass' music. After four or five very lively tunes, Barbara helped me load some 400 pounds of rusty washing machines. At a time like this, she wishes I could have taken up collecting something smaller; I remind her there are some in this world who collect big engines and even tractors. All loaded and tied down, we told our new friend that we'd be back another day and then took off to continue the hunt.

Like more than a few of the machines we have come onto, the 'tree-bound' one was missing most of its original wooden tub, as well as most of the wringer. Except for a couple of cast iron guards, all of the metal parts were still intact, although completely rusted to an extreme state of rigor mortis.

(Fig. 2) In the era this machine was made (about 1910) there were over 1000 manufacturers of washing machines, but just two major makers of wringers. Consequently, because of their interchange ability, finding wringer parts is relatively easy. Finding substitute wooden tubs is also not too hard, since the many different machine manufacturers apparently acquired tubs from just a few coopers (barrel makers).

After using what seemed to be a quart of WD-40, a half-tank of acetylene and more than a few choice words, all of the cast iron pieces came apart and for once I didn't break a single one. I toss all of the parts, that are small enough, into my wood burning shop stove to begin the cleaning process (watch out for babbitt or wooden bearings). After the heat treatment, all that remains is a little wire brushing and the occasional use of a small sand blaster. The parts are then primed and spray painted. Many times the choice of colors is left to my imagination since, for the most part, there is no literature on these relics and 80 years of rusting has left little clue of the original color.

The tub, made of cypress, found at a flea market in Kansas, is likewise completely dismantled, washed, sanded and then oiled. From the small bits of wood remaining from the original wringer, I could surmise what the replacement should look like. The wringer I chose for this project was originally part of a hand operated washing stand. In 1910 there was little difference between wringers used on powered machines and those on hand operated ones. The rubber rollers cannot be economically replaced, so I just use a little sandpaper to enhance their whiteness, and purposely leave them in a somewhat erose and wrinkled condition-for the sake of character, of course.

The pieces (Fig. 3) of Tom Coffey's machine can now be assembled, hopefully. For a typical powered machine, if there is one, the complete restoration process usually takes about a week or ten days, full time. During the dismantling process I generally take three to four photographs to assist my failing memory on how to put the thing together again. I don't know which is more frustrating-to have a part come up missing, or a part left over when you think you are all done.

This machine, like many others, has very interesting casting and gear work, e.g., the drive gearing for the wringer, Fig. 4. This machine was originally electric powered, as was the case for the majority of early powered machines. Machines powered by gasoline engines, either stationary or on-board, generally were produced later than the electric models, and in smaller quantities. For the most part, only the rural people had to endure the pleasures of keeping the 'one-lunger' alive until the wash was done, and many of them were indeed happy when the REA came along. There are other types of power too: we have a treadmill for 'dog, sheep, or goat' that is belted to an otherwise hand operated machine. We have also acquired two water powered machines. There seem to be myriad hand and foot powered machines, each one apparently purported to be better than its competitors'.

The machine acquired from the one-man-band in Missouri is now complete, Fig. 5, except of course for the tree. We had as much fun finding it as I had in doing the restoration. Even Barbara is supposed to have fun when it comes time to dust the menagerie of the restored relics. If you come to see our collection, you can have fun too, and I'll even let you listen to 'Crabgrass' music, as we did on the way back to Colorado.