Recently I came across a photocopied article about wheelbarrows which
our friend Fritz had sent us a couple of years ago.
And then last month, our friend Richard sent us a link to a fabulous online
article about Chinese wheelbarrows. Both articles seem well worth sharing.
We have quite a few wheelbarrows at our place. Most notable are the three that Kenneth built of wood and bicycle parts, which I will include photos of here.
And there are two or three additional wheelbarrows, I think all of which were salvaged from the dump, but it’s hard for me to really know. In any case, the salvaged ones are mostly antiques and were acquired either as models for designs or for their parts. They are not the ones in heavy rotation.
We use our wheelbarrows almost daily; for moving things up and down our long, unpaved path from the cars, for hauling water from the well to our house or the sauna, and for the annual springtime wood splitting and stacking.
The barrows with the wheel up front are ideal for bringing tree rounds out of
the woods - the one with the fat tire is especially adept at making it over
fallen limbs and logs.
There is a lot to say about wheelbarrow design, use and construction.
We will definitely come back to fill out the topic with additional articles as
we have the time. But for now this introduction is a good place to start the
wheelbarrow rolling. — AK
This first article is reprinted from the July/August 2011 edition of the Nova Scotia periodical, Rural Delivery, which covers life in rural Atlantic Canada.
(Apologies for replacing the article's drawings with our own photos...)
Whimsy and the wheelbarrow
by Olivia Finley
This spring marks the first anniversary of the passing of my dear companion, Whimsy. She was wood and iron and long ago someone loved her well enough to paint her fiery red. Whimsy the wheelbarrow served me well for many years; she was my superpower, my cool hidden ability. She made me stronger. Though parts of her persist in the augmented wheelbarrow waiting patiently even now outside our front door, Whimsy whole was wholly irreplaceable and so I find myself thinking of her again as winter gives way at last.
Although I would not be so romantic as to call my introduction to Whimsy love at first sight, I will admit that I coveted the wheelbarrow from the first. We were house hunting when we found her. Our family having outgrown the little flat in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, we were looking to settle out of town on our own piece of workable land. We were not long in finding what we sought: four and a half wooded ares stretching down the County Line and a little old house that boldly dared us to call it home. The instant I emerged from the car I felt that this was a good and fertile place to plant our sprouting selves. We toured around, not so much to see if we would live there but instead to imagine it all when.
My son would live here, he told us, if we could keep the old organ that had been tucked away in an upstairs bedroom. My daughter was captivated by a sea chest stuffed with quilts and my explorer husband discovered a treasure trove of rusty home-steading equipment. Hoes, hatchets, and the like were strewn all around the property’s two small outbuildings. It was here, tangled up in grapevines as thick as our wrists and half swallowed by wild roses, that we
found my wheelbarrow.
Just a glance told us that the cart was still solid where it counted, still ready to roll even as its advanced age. I remember looking around at the property again then, turning slowly and taking in the rolling lawn and the thick woods before looking down again at the wheelbarrow. I saw the rocks already run over on its iron wheel and I saw the scars across its boards from countless loads carried. I thought, and maybe even said out loud, that if the wheelbarrow remained here then I could too.
The usefulness of a wheelbarrow is more than obvious — it is built into our nature. Its simple iconic image, a single wheel and two well-placed handles, strikes a universal chord, representing our struggle and our enduring ingenuity. Every human being at some time finds themselves in need of precisely the services that a well-suited wheelbarrow can provide. There have always been and will always be loads that need carrying and cumbersome objects that need moving. A good wheelbarrow is also a workbench, a seat in the afternoon sun, the solution to a problem. The wheelbarrow is truly the innovation of “everyman”.
The wheelbarrow was invented independently at different times all across our motley globe and stands as a perfect illustration of the phenomenon of independent invention. It seems that there are as many different wheelbarrow designs as there are people who have pushed them. Prime Minister Chukka Liang (197 - 234 AD) of China has long been credited as the first inventor of the wheelbarrow. As the story goes, in 231 A.D. Liang’s infantry used one-wheeled carts called wooden oxen to transport supplies to injured soldiers along narrow, rocky embankments. The Chinese wheelbarrows had their wheels placed centrally, allowing for an even distribution of weight which would have been especially nice over long distances. That all makes good sense. So does surmising that wheelbarrows were used in Ancient Greece to move building materials around construction sites The evidence is lacking but only because no one has really looked. Perhaps we have just not feel the need to physically confirm something we know intuitively to be true: the wheelbarrow must be as old as humankind, however could we have gotten by without it?
Whimsy was a western wheelbarrow, her trademark single iron wheel rolling along at the head of the load. Wheelbarrows like her appeared in Europe around the 11th or 12th century. By the 15th century, wheelbarrows of the sort with which we are all familiar were in wide use. The popularity of the one-wheeled cart has not since waned. Nearly a millennium after it first proved its mettle, the humble wheelbarrow remains an essential to anyone — man, woman, or child, in any walk of life, anywhere in the world. The omnipresent wheelbarrow has become so banal that we take its millennia of service for granted. Were it not for my own Whimsy and the notability of her absence on the property this summer, I likely would not have considered her kind much past my list of chores. What was Whimsy precisely that her presence should be so missed? I have wondered. She has been replaced and yet she was irreplaceable. She was built by hand based on a timeless, well-worn design and yet the quirks of her construction were the result of her relationship with this particular piece of land. Whimsy was the best wheelbarrow for this property because she and it had grown together like old wood does.
Whimsy came to grief last spring under a heavy load. The fault was mine and I paid for my foolishness both with Whimsy and with my own flesh and blood. I had been set to use Whimsy for her intended purpose, working on the property, and had every confidence she would perform as she had always done. With what I now know were too many bags of cement, I thought it best to do a “test lift” to check whether Whimsy and I could indeed handle the load before we started rolling. Grasping her handles firmly, I raised Whimsy gently up onto her wheel. Almost instantly the wood of her right handle split, letting loose the load in my direction and, what was worse, driving the sharp stake-end of the broken handle straight into the meat of my shin. I knew that the wound would require some stitches but my first lucid thought was for Whimsy; her injury was career ending and I could already feel the regret for her broken handle in the pit of my gut. I have since healed well enough, but Whimsy never did fully recover. My carpenter husband salvaged her iron skeleton and her big single wheel and so there is still something left of the real Whimsy. Her spirit endures. This might sound indulgent but anyone who uses hand tools or hand-built gear is familiar with the eccentricities of such things. My new wheelbarrow is not Whimsy but it is strong and solid and dependable and I will come to know it too.
As I think about wheelbarrows and about Whimsy I can’t help but remember the poem by William Carlos Williams. Like the wheelbarrow, through its simplicity and immediacy Williams’ poem reveals something universal, illuminates a little piece of what it means to be human in this world.
We are all mortal, even centuries-old wheelbarrows, but our spirits are timeless and will endure in our life’s work and in the contributions we make to the work of others. May the spirit of growth be with you and your wheelbarrow as you head out this season.
- Olivia Finley
And now a link to the very informative and interesting article about
Chinese wheelbarrows from the British online magazine called
Low Tech Magazine. It's long, detailed and marvelously illustrated.
Well worth the time.
Check it out HERE.
Angela & Kenneth Kortemeier
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