Museum really digs the shovel 784 models manufactured by one company fill up basement at Mass. college

January 10, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

EASTON, Mass. -- Shoveling "is as elementary as mud," laments author and shovel scientist Frederick W. Taylor. "So low a position in the scale of human labor does it occupy that it is considered unworthy of THOUGHT."

So begins a pamphlet on shoveling to be found among hundreds of other artifacts in the nation's only Shovel Museum.

Even in the face of the extensive current use of these yeoman-like tools as the East Coast digs out from a blizzard, the shovel remains largely ill-considered and unsung. Mostly, it is viewed as an object for labor and loathing.

But in Easton, locals know differently: This, after all, is Shovel Town.

The museum's setting isn't fancy. Down a jerry-built staircase in an old elevator shaft, the museum occupies the basement of Donahue Hall at Stonehill College. There shovels sit on pedestals, line walls and hallways, fill glass cases -- and are immortalized.

Curator Louise Kenneally said there are 784 shovels in the basement, plus 19 more silver-plated shovels upstairs in a room adjacent to a small chapel -- "a kind of sacristy for the shovels," she said.

No two shovels are alike. There are square shovels, round shovels, shovels shaped like hearts and shovels shaped like tongues, some deep, some flat, some light, others heavy as barbells.

There's a "dandelion spade" with a long narrow blade, a "potato scoop" slotted to help separate spuds from the earth that sometimes clings to them, coffee bean shovels, cotton shovels and a "crested four-star snow pusher" with a curled blade.

The museum houses the collection of the Ames Shovel Co., which was founded in 1803 in North Easton by Oliver Ames. In the 1770s, his father, Capt. John Ames, a blacksmith in West Bridgewater, had fashioned some of the first metal-blade shovels in Colonial America, using bog iron. (Until that time, Ms. Kenneally said, American shovels were made of wood; colonists seeking stronger shovels had to buy metal ones from England.)

Oliver Ames improved his father's designs and built a factory where he and his sons mass-produced millions of shovels. By 1879, according to Ms. Kenneally, the company was making three-fifths of all the spades, scoops and shovels in the world.

Stonehill College, on the estate of Frederick Lothrop Ames, another of Oliver's descendants, acquired the shovel collection in 1973 as a gift from a businessman who had bought the remains of the shovel factory.

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