The May 2014 Artifact of the Month is a collection of antique woodworking tools and tool chest that once belonged to Jesse Cox of Vermont. Vernon Thompson, also of Vermont, and a distant relation of Jesse Cox, donated the tool chest and contents to the museum.  From 1837 to 2012, these tools were passed from father to son for four generations. Jesse Cox, the original owner of the tools, was an early Fulton County pioneer; he traveled from Ohio and arrived in the Vermont area in 1837.  The first settlers came to the Vermont area in 1832, making Jesse a part of the first wave of those who came from the East to build and make a home in Illinois.

The history of the Cox family is well documented in Fulton County history. Jesse was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania on March 24, 1807 and died at the age of 78 on March 26, 1883 in Vermont, Fulton County, Illinois.  He is buried in the Vermont Cemetery.  In the History of Fulton County, Illinois, published in 1879, there is an entry for Jesse Cox on page 911.

Jesse Cox, retired, was born in Chester Co., Pa., in 1807, of Quaker parents, who were of English descent. Thomas Cox, the father of Jesse, grew to manhood in Penn., where he followed the two callings of carpenter and farmer; he married Elizabeth Messer, and they had 5 children, of whom Jesse was the third. The parents died in Penn. Jesse learned the carpenter’s trade; married Theodosia Mershon, daughter of Henry Mershon, of N. Y., July 27, 1829, in Penn.; came to Vermont in 1837, followed carpentering, built the first store (of any note) in Vermont, and both grist-mills; he was the first Justice of the Peace, serving 8 years in this capacity; has been Supervisor; in 1841 he purchased 1/4 sec., and afterwards 1/2 sec. more, and one year he raised the largest crop of wheat ever raised in the county, shipping 350 barrels to St. Louis one day.

Jesse Cox was a carpenter and farmer, and helped to build not only gristmills, but also barns and houses around Vermont.  His set of tools probably played a significant role in his life.  This was a time when everything was constructed by hand and the importance of having a good set of tools in pioneer life cannot be stressed enough.

Another indication of the importance of these tools is that Jesse did not leave it to chance as to what would happen to his collection after his death.  Jesse passed his tools and tool chest on to his son, Henry Cox, who lived on the original Cox farm after his father’s death.  Henry then passed the tools on to his son, William Travis Cox, and when he passed, the tools went to his two sons, Monroe and Clair Cox.  Finally, the tools went to Monroe’s son, Travis Henry Cox.  Travis Henry Cox unexpectedly died suddenly in 2012, and he had not made any provisions about the tools, so the tools were put up for auction at a sale of his personal effects.

Related to the Cox family, Vernon Thompson knew the history of the tools and the tool chest.  He knew the tools had been at the same family farm, passed down from father to son, for four generations, from Jesse Cox all the way to Travis Henry Cox.  Vernon was friends with Travis Henry Cox, and had seen the tools at the family farm.  Vernon Thompson wanted to preserve the Cox family collection of tools as an illustration of pioneer history, and he purchased the tools and tool chest at the auction.  Thompson thought it was important to keep the tools together as a collection, thinking that the tools together were more significant than if they were dispersed.

Totaling approximately 65 items, the contents of the chest represent the full variety of tools an active carpenter/woodworker would use.  The tools date from the 1830s onward to approximately the present day, some are from Philadelphia, some come all the way from Sheffield, England.  Jesse Cox started the collection of tools and family members added other tools, accumulated through the years.

Inside the chest are the following tools:

hand planes


hand saw

wood scribes

try squares


gouge chisels


hand augers

drill bits

molding planes

back saw

The collection contains many examples of tools made by well-known 19th manufacturers from all parts of the world, such as a H. Disston backsaw.  A backsaw is a tool which has a stiffening rib on the edge opposite the cutting edge and is used for more precise cutting. Backsaws are normally used in woodworking to cut dovetails or miters.  Located in Philadelphia, H. Disston was the most successful manufacturer of saws in the United States in the 19th century.  On the handle of the Disston saw is a medallion with an eagle.  The company changed the style of the medallion throughout the factory’s existance.  The style of eagle on this Disston backsaw dates it to the mid 1850s.

Another tool in the chest is from the Ibbotson Brothers, Globe Works Company. The company’s mark is on a try square, a woodworking tool used for marking and measuring a piece of wood. A try square has a broad blade made of steel that is riveted to a wooden handle. The square refers to the tool’s use of measuring the accuracy of a right angle.  The term, “to try a surface” is to check its straightness or correspondence to an adjoining surface.   The Globe Works Factory located in Sheffield, England and the try square in the Cox tool chest was made in the mid-1800s.  In the 19th century, Sheffield, England was major producer of tools that were sold all over the world.

Also located in the city of Sheffield, England in the 19th century was the W. Butcher Company, specialists in manufacturing edge tools, files, razors and all types of cutlery and steel tools.   In the Cox family tool collection are drawknives and chisels marked with the W. Butcher mark.  A drawknife is a traditional woodworking hand tool used to shape wood by removing small amounts of wood. It consists of a blade with a handle at each end, the blade is pulled or “drawn” (hence the name) toward the user to shave the wood.

The Cox Family Tool collection handed down through four generations in a west-central Illinois family serves not only as a fine example of the variety of hand woodworking tools used in the 19th century, but also is an illustration of the significant pioneer heritage in this region.

The tool collection was on display May 1 – May 30, 2014.  Research assistance provided by George Wanamake

Article by Heather Munro