Among the old tools in my blacksmith shop is a 140-year-old wagon wrench that has time-traveled from the first homestead in the Tehachapi area to the present day. It provides lasting proof of the resourcefulness of the area's early settlers.
The tool is a wagon wrench that came from the old John Moore Brite homestead in Brite Valley. It was probably a traveling tool that remained with the wagon for which it was made, ready to tighten bolts or assist in repairs made on the road.
This combination wrench is 15 inches long with a 7/8-inch opening it one end and both 5/8-inch and 1/2-inch openings on the other end, making it useful for turning three different sizes of nuts or bolts. At the time the wrench was made in the 1870s, most nuts and bolt heads were square — the hexagon shape that dominates today didn't become prevalent until the 20th century.
The wrench was hammered into a graceful scroll shape, offering better leverage and more versatility in tightening hard-to-reach bolts. This gave rise to the common name "S wrench" or "snake wrench" for this design.
The most curious thing about the wrench is an unusual pattern of flattened scales on one side and cross-hatching on the other. This is not a design flourish, but is actually a remnant of the wrench's earlier life as a totally different tool: a hoof rasp for horses.
Iron and steel were expensive materials in Tehachapi's pioneering era and usable amounts were not discarded after one use, they were recycled into something else.
So when J.M. Brite or one of his family members needed a wagon wrench, rather than making one from new metal stock, they went to the scrap pile and retrieved an old hoof rasp that was worn out and dull from leveling the hooves of many horses.
After first bringing the rasp to a red-hot heat in a glowing forge, the blacksmith who made it probably let it cool very slowly in a bucket of wood ashes to anneal the metal — make it less brittle.
Then the old rasp would be reheated, and the blacksmith pounded flat both the semicircular teeth of the rough cut side and the finer cross-hatchings of the finish side. It would then take another hour or two of hammering to fashion the hoof rasp into a wagon wrench.
It is uncertain who exactly forged the wrench — there were several talented blacksmiths in the Brite family, and the well-known Red Front Blacksmith Shop in old Tehachapi was operated by members of the closely-related Brite and Wiggins families. That shop is commemorated by the blacksmithing historic mural on the west side of the former Moose Lodge on Curry Street, which was the approximate location of the Red Front Blacksmith Shop.
After years of service, the old hoof rasp/wagon wrench was lost to humanity and forgotten.
It was eventually dug up in Brite Valley at the John Moore Brite homestead by the late Herb Force, who was primarily looking for antique bottles. Knowing my interest in blacksmithing and Tehachapi history, Herb gave the wrench to me 40 years ago.
So this recycled, handmade tool remains, an iron reminder of a time when Tehachapi residents lived by the adage "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.