Tools from the Past: A Conversation with the Collector

What does the man who has amassed a collection of over 10,000 antique gardening tools spanning several centuries and originating from more than a few continents and countries NOT have? What does he covet? A terra cotta watering pot circa 1600 AD of course.  And what is his oldest tool? A pair of scissors from the late 1500’s…

The Art of the Garden Tool

Landscape Architect Mark Morrison’s impressive and stunningly beautiful collection of antique garden implements fills his studio and garage space in upstate New York. The rarely seen collection includes a wide array of specialized instruments, from cucumber straighteners and wasp catchers to trowels, watering cans and scythes.  A select segment of his collection is now being shown here at Bartow-Pell in an exhibit entitled “Dibbles and Daisy Grubbers: The Art of the Garden Tool”.  To my mind, anyone with an interest in history, preservation, gardening, art or antiques should put it on their ‘must-see’ list.

I caught up with Mark earlier two weeks ago, as he was installing the Bartow-Pell exhibit.  “Ever since I was a young boy growing up in Illinois, I’ve loved old metal rusty things,” said Mark, handing me an elegant English lady’s spade with nary a rust speck on it. The tool was lightweight and wonderful to hold, with sharp prongs designed to slice easily through turf and soil. The wooden shaft shone, burnished by decades of use in a long forgotten garden in England. I wanted to run outside and start digging. “During summers working as a furniture mover in Wisconsin, I loved looking through barns of old stuff.”  Thus his hobby began, 35 years ago. Since then Mark has travelled the world, from North America to Europe, Asia and Africa and he has amassed a knowledge and collection with few rivals. When I asked whether he knew of anyone else with a similar passion, Mark mentioned the Museum of Tools and Trade (Maison de l’Outil et de la pensee ouvrieree) in Troyes, France as another fine collection.  It boasts 10,000 tools from a variety of trades.

In Bartow-Pell’s exhibit visitors can see custom-made leather lawn boots, which horseswore over their hooves so that while pulling a lawn mower they didn’t harm the grass on which they walked. Gardens grow a wide range of vegetables and it seems that each required a specific tool. In 19th century France, people preferred their asparagus with a tender pale white stem. For that they devised an elegant tool to suit the task, a long implement which could be inserted down the length of the plant, into the soil where a clever gardener could make a clean cut. Of course the English did not concur; they liked a young green asparagus shoot, and so devised their asparagus cutter differently. The exhibit displays both tools, the French and the English asparagus cutter, side by side, each an example of the beauty of a perfectly crafted tool.

For the current exhibit, Morrison and curator Barbara Burn Dolansek selected implements that would have been used at the time the Bartow family lived in the residence, the later half of the 19th century. The tools are presented in sections according to their function: prepping the soil, planting, cultivating, pruning, controlling pests, harvesting and watering.

And by the way, what would a terra cotta watering pot circa 1600 AD cost?  About $20,000,  Mark estimated.  WOW!

Cynthia Brown, Bartow-Pell Conservancy Board Member

NOTE: The exhibit can be viewed when the Mansion is open to the public, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday from noon until 4:00 pm. On Tuesday, April 17 at 7:30 pm Mark Morrison will give a talk on “The History and Evolution of Garden Tools.”

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