The Hammer that Built Main Hall

Old Main, one of the first buildings on the Iowa State campus (However, from 1858-1898 Iowa State University was called the State Agricultural College and Model Farm).  Histories of the building can be found here and here.

In addition to our archival collections, rare books, photographs, and films, the Special Collections Department also holds thousands of artifacts, many of which document the history of Iowa State.  This spring spring semester, senior anthropology major Jennifer Lambert conducted her senior research project on the hammer our department holds which was used to help build Main Hall, and was used for other building and maintenance work at Iowa State for many years during its early history.  Old Main, after the Farm House and cattle barns (now gone), was one of the first buildings on the Iowa State campus and was used for a wide variety of purposes.  Jennifer generously gave us permission to use parts of her paper for a blog post. Sections from Jennifer’s paper, Hammering Out Local History: Material Culture Studies at Iowa State University, are  included below. [Please note: the photographs, and accompanying captions, were added for the blog post].

“The agricultural college building was purposefully designed to house professors, students, and staff, along with their classrooms and living areas, all under one roof.  After the stresses of the Civil War had passed, funds became available in 1864 to start construction work on the college.  The project’s architect was C.A. Dunham with Jacob Reichard as contractor and by the fall of 1868 ‘Old Main’ was completed and stood as a five story tall building fashioned after the Mansard period of architecture.  Old Main’s facilities included: library, bell tower, balconies, lecture room, two octagon tower staircases, recitation rooms, steward’s room, laboratory, bathroom, dining room, kitchen, scullery, store room, washrooms, laundry, servant’s rooms, housekeeper’s room, armory, professor’s rooms, twenty-one student rooms, thirty rooms on the fourth and fifth floors, and a cellar.  When the first recognized term started on October 21, 1869, there were seven professors, 136 male students, and thirty-seven female students attending the college.  President Welch asked for two wings to be added to Old Main in 1870, and both were completed by May 1872…”

Campus circa 1875.  The enormous size of Old Main (and the amount of work it must have been to build!) can be better imagined from this early image of the Iowa State campus.  Old Main is the large building to the far right.  Look at those small houses to the left in comparison!  A fire destroyed the north wing and devasted other parts of the building on December 8th, 1900, and two years later the south wing was burned by fire (completely destroying the building).  Main Hall no longer remains, and is now known as Old Main.

“…Many people moved to Ames to work on the first Old Main construction project and some brought their own tools with them, such as hammers.  One of these workmen, Oliphant P. Stuckslager, is tied to not only to the history of one hammer and Iowa State University, but to the history of the United States, as well.

Born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania on December 4th, 1837, Stuckslager grew up and moved to Iowa, where he married Emily Harlan and was the father of four children.  During the Civil War he served with the 44th Iowan Volunteer Infantry and was honorably discharged September 15th, 1864.  Stuckslager worked as a mechanic, carpenter, and contractor with his first job being to assist in constructing Iowa State University’s Old Main.  In a note left with President Friley, Mrs. Alice Stockwell (Oliphant’s daughter) and Mr. Harley Stuckslager (Oliphant’s son) explain that the hammer that was donated to Iowa State University was purchased in Marshalltown, IA by their father ‘for the express purpose of being used in the construction of the first building on the grounds of the Iowa State Agricultural College in 1868’ (Friley).  Stuckslager moved both his family and his hammer to Ames in 1868 so that he could work on the Old Main building, and their house still stands today at 812 Douglas Ave.  After spending a full life helping to build town businesses and residences, Stuckslager passed away on July 5th, 1908 and is buried in the Ames Cemetery…”

The Hammer

Lambert concludes that Stuckslager’s hammer is a claw hammer, made sometime after 1840: “…Claw hammers have two styles depending on their weight: a 13oz-24oz hammer is used for carpentry purposes, and a 24oz-28oz hammer is used by framers to chop, split, and pry apart structural wood.  The Stuckslager hammer weighs in at 18.7oz and can be placed in the claw hammer category that is used for carpentry work.  Hickory is used in hammer handles because it is a natural vibration dampener, but is prone to break if the user overstrikes and hits the handle on the wood instead of the head.  Observations of the Stuckslager hammer and comparisons with other hickory handled hammers shows it to most likely be made from hickory, and that it also has damage to the wood surrounding the head’s base from overstriking.  Hammer heads are forged from steel for strength and durability, often heat-treated for toughness and wear resistance.  This treatment focuses on the striking face, the eye where the handle is inserted and on the claws.  Looking at the Stuckslager hammer, the striking face and claws are a different color and texture from the rest of the head, but this could also be from wear and not heat-treatment.  A ground striking face that is canted slightly toward the handle to center hammer blows and a double-beveled nail slot are two other indicators of a carpenter’s claw hammer.  Both of these indicators can be observed on the Stuckslager hammer as well.

Other observations of Stuckslager’s hammer include the indentations of nicks and grooves on the head and handle, as well as cracks in the wood shaft seen through the top of the hammer head.  These indications of wear, along with the uneven coats of varnish on the hickory handle, all attest to the conclusion that the hammer was used repeatedly and diligently repaired.  The wear and documentation surrounding the hammer prove that it is from 1868, but it can’t be proven if the hammer was made then or earlier.  The making of the hammer has been lessened to a time span of between 1840 and 1868 because its styling matches David Maydole’s from the 1840s.  Considering the information currently available, the Stuckslager hammer can be between 171 and 143 years old.”

Thanks to Jennifer Lambert for letting us share parts of her informative paper.  We wish her all the best as a graduate of Iowa State University!

One thought on “The Hammer that Built Main Hall

  1. Pingback: Artifacts in the Archives – Our Favorite Artifacts | Cardinal Tales: The Blog of Special Collections and University Archives at Iowa State University

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