There aren't many weather vanes like the one standing atop Jeffrey Smith's garage in Oakhurst, Calif. This one, in the shape of a train, is handmade by a local coppersmith.
"It's an old steam engine and coal car," says Smith, a 61-year-old retired train conductor for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway of the stationary weather vane. "The north is facing north, but it doesn't rotate because it's so heavy."
For centuries, weather vanes have stood tall and proud, perched on rooftops, spinning at the whim of the wind. They're still popular, but their purpose has changed in recent years. Homeowners now tend to buy them more for their decorative appeal than their intended function.
"In this day and age, everyone's got weather.com on their computer" if they want to know which way the wind is blowing, says Mike Grill, the hardware department manager at Fresno Ag Hardware in Fresno, Calif.
Weather vanes are "more of an aesthetic thing or a finishing touch on a house, barn or gazebo."
Although the inventor of the first weather vane may never really be known, these wind devices have been vital to many through the ages.
"Weather vanes had their roots in forms that were developed out of early man's need to understand and predict the most ephemeral of nature's forces -- the wind," wrote Robert Bishop and Patricia Coblentz, authors of A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs (E.P. Dutton, $27.50).
"The need to predict with a relative degree of accuracy the changes in weather heralded by the direction of the wind certainly led to the development of the weathervane, one of the first meteorological instruments devised."
Early weather vanes were made of metal or wood and usually had designs that included arrows or heads that turned in the direction of the wind. They typically rotated on a pole. Early settlers to America are believed to have used them.
"Weathervanes were unquestionably used in mid-17th-century America," Bishop and Coblentz wrote. "Although no specific New World vane is known to exist from this period, marginal decorations on early maps in the form of cityscapes illustrate their use in New York in the last half of the 17th century."
Weather vanes -- whether wood or metal, three-dimensional or flat silhouettes -- were originally handcrafted. Designs included animals, such as roosters, pigs and fishes, and images, such as mermaids and trains.
But the Industrial Revolution eventually changed how they were made. "Commercial, large-scale production vanes became more realistic and the innovative, one-of-a-kind creations in both metal and wood nearly disappeared," wrote Bishop and Coblentz.
Many weather vanes, such as those available through catalogs and stores, are manufactured commercially. They can be made out of copper or other metal materials. Some designs also include stained-glass parts.
They are made by a machine and a mold where the metal is pressed into the mold, says Jack Holder, a coppersmith in Oakhurst, Calif., who created Smith's weather vane.
"The handmade ones are hammered into a mold and take more time. You have to form it, shape it and do the final touches."
Not many coppersmiths still make weather vanes anymore, says Holder, who makes about two a year. "It's kind of a dying trade," he says.
Besides trains, he's done a mermaid, a piano, an old motion camera, antique cars and biplanes.
Weather vanes often have reflected aspects of the homeowner's or the house's styles. For Smith, as a former railroad conductor, the train image was significant to him.
"It's kind of an identity thing," he says. "It gives you a sense of a purpose. Like, my purpose was working for the railroad. I would think that if a person was a carpenter, they'd put up a saw."