Tool collection being dispersed at a series of auctions


"When he brought home a small molding plane and put it on the mantel, I had no idea what it would lead to," said Helen Beitler, whose late husband Abraham Merklee Beitler was known as "the gentleman tool collector."

Over a period of 35 years, Mr. Beitler went on to amass a collection of more than 10,000 tools and about 400 tool catalogs and give tool collecting "classes."

"When he was winding down his small advertising agency in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, he decided to devote all of his time to tool collecting," Mrs. Beitler continued. "We would go to the farmers' market in Perkiomenville [Pa.] every Monday, where there would be five auctions going on simultaneously and a flea market outside in good weather and some dealers inside as well. We always came home with some tools, pocket knives, lanterns, tin lunch pails, country store items or advertising signs."

Every Thursday the Beitlers went to the farmer's market in Columbus, N.J. On Saturdays Mr. Beitler never missed a good farm sale in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware. A big man with shaggy brows, dressed nattily from the L. L. Bean catalog, he would sit up front and outbid anyone for what he wanted. He put his purchases in the blue canvas bag he always carried.

Soon he had so many tools that he had to sell some to make room for more. The Beitlers set up on Sundays at the outdoor market at Shupps Grove in Adamstown, Pa.

"The more we sold, the more he bought," confessed Mrs. Beitler, who formed her own collection of trade cards, bill heads and catalogs.

Twelve years ago when Shupps Grove went to a two-day market, Saturdays and Sundays, the Beitlers moved to the Black Angus, the indoor Sunday market in Adamstown. "Merk," as his collecting friends called him, would not give up his Saturdays at the farm sales.

"He would come home from the sales with a station wagon full of tools and a gleam in his eye, and the piles of tools in every room of the house would get bigger and bigger," Mrs. Beitler recounted.

When A. M. Beitler died in July at the age of 81, tool collectors wondered what would become of his vast collection.

Helen Beitler decided it must be sold at auction. "For years he was known as the city fellow who went to the farm sales and took away their tools," Mrs. Beitler confessed. "So I thought the tools should be sold in Pennsylvania where those people can get them back without traveling very far."

She asked Pottstown, Pa., tool auctioneer Barry Hurchalla to hold the sales. Mr. Hurchalla says it will take at least 16 sales to disperse the collection. "We began the series of monthly sales in October [1990] and we will hold one every month through 1991 and into 1992," said Mr. Hurchalla. There are about 500 lots in each sale -- a broad assortment of axes, planes, hammers, rules, plumb bobs, calipers, plus uncataloged box lots. There are good things in each sale and always lots of surprises, like advertising signs and tool catalogs. In the spring one sale will be devoted to pocket knives and air guns.

The illustrated catalog for the June 16 sale costs $12. That sale will be held at the Reading Motor Inn on the Sunday after the Early American Industries Association, the tool collectors' group, meets at the Landis Valley Farm Museum in nearby Lancaster County.

The stars of the June sale will be a rare pair of crown molding planes by Thomas Napier. "Mr. Beitler used to bring them up to the Angus on Sundays and if anyone asked about them he would say they were for sale for $25,000," recalls Dan Ludwig, a fellow tool dealer at the Black Angus. "Thomas Napier came from Glasgow to Philadelphia in 1770 and made planes for Philadelphia carpenters until he died in 1812. These crown molding planes are over 8 inches wide. That's monstrous for a plane," Mr. Ludwig explained. If they are sold separately some say they could bring more than $10,000 each. A center wheel plow plane with ivory inlay signed by Israel White, another Philadelphia maker, circa 1830, is expected to bring in the high four figures.

With so many tools coming on the market, have prices softened? Mr. Ludwig thinks not; but he says there are always good buys. At the first sales, attended by about 150 collectors, a rare sash plane made by Benjamin Huff, Baltimore, circa 1850, sold for $2,250. A strong $300 was paid for a brass plumb bob made by Young and Son of Philadelphia, and an early hammer went for $250. A pair of leg-shaped calipers, 2 inches high, sold for $100, and a Davis level (Springfield, Mass., last quarter of the 19th century) with none of its cast iron filigree broken sold for a reasonable $130.

The monthly sales are held in the Wayside Community Room on Swinehart Road four miles north of Pottstown, Pa. A typed list is available from Mr. Hurchalla, 343 High St., Pottstown, Pa. 19464.

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