Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Clean it, Maintain it, Fix it

In a reply to a previous post, I was reminded of the need to learn to make do with what we have and to repair and maintain things. That brought to mind the two tools shown in the photo above – both tools have been in the family for several generations. The grubbing hoe is still in quite usable condition despite the handle being wrapped with a strip of metal that has been nailed in place. The axe, on the other hand, is just kept as a reminder of a time when tools were treasured and were not easily replaced.

One of life’s great lessons is learning that it always pays to buy quality and then maintain it. Quality tools, well cared for, maintained, and repaired as needed, are far better than saving a few dollars buying Chinese junk and then replacing it because it’s not worth repairing.

One of my routines is to always wash all of my garden tools and set them out to dry when I’m finished using them. Most of the time, that is all that is needed before hanging them in their place in the tool shed. If a tool should start to get some rust on it, I clean it off with a wire wheel or whatever is appropriate, rub a bit of oil on it, then put it away. About once a year, I go through all of my tools and use a file to sharpen them, but some tools get sharpened more frequently.

Wooden handles are too-often neglected. I use a rag to rub linseed oil into the wood handles of my tools. If they are treated with reasonable care and stored out of the weather, a good hardwood tool handle should last a lifetime and be able to be passed down to the next generation. Some folks prefer to paint their wood handles, but I’ve never had any desire to do that. 1) I love the look and feel of real wood, and 2) Paint can hide cracks and other problems that should be quickly taken care of.

The grubbing hoe in the photo probably came down with the family when they moved from Alabama to Florida in about 1921 – nearly a century ago. Although we usually associate covered wagons with pioneers moving west, that is how my grandparents moved their family and household goods down here. My grandfather built a covered wagon that was pulled by oxen. It was driven down what was called the Florida Short Route, marked by crude signs and tree carvings saying “FSR”. The cattle were carried by train, and some of the family was loaded into an old Ford, and off they went to find a place where the farming was easier than the rock-filled clay of McGehee Mountain in Clay County, Alabama.


  1. Heather

    Beautiful, just beautiful, the post, the photo, the story of your family! And you know I agree, taking care of good tools is so important. I have knitting needles handed down from one of my grandmothers and I have most of my mother’s sewing tools and equipment. In fact, we have a piece of beeswax, used for strengthening thread, that was my mother’s favorite aunt, so it must date from around 1900, or thereabouts. We call it “the family beeswax”! And I enjoyed hearing about your family moving to Florida. My grandfather’s family left North Carolina towards the end of 1888, my grandfather always said he was “conceived in the state of North Carolina and born in the Territory of Washington.” Of course, Washington became a state a few months after he was born. I asked him once how the family got to WA, and he said they took a train. I was so disappointed, I wanted them to be “real” pioneers and take a covered wagon! But your family did, very cool!
    Thank you for taking the time to do this blog, I enjoy it very much, and I think we are really coming to a time where all this knowledge will be much needed.

  2. Judy

    Your so right about the care of garden and farming tools. We use a mixture of 5lbs of bees wax and one bottle of mineral oil. Melted together it makes a very nice sealer for wood that is what I refer to as raw. Several costs can be applied and polished in , even on old wood. The plus is that it makes you hands really soft.
    We also put an essential oil in usually something that is a bug repellent.
    Very much enjoy reading your blog although I like letters better.

  3. Stephen Clay McGehee

    Thank you so much for the replies and the kind words.
    Interesting that the first two replies both talk about using beeswax. It’s amazing just how little beeswax there is in a honeycomb. Bees are extremely efficient at making the most of the wax, and a large piece of comb melts down into just a little piece of beeswax.
    The first use of beeswax that I learned was when my father taught me to apply it to a screw before using it.
    I’ll be doing a few posts on bees and bee keeping – I currently have four beehives.

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