By Leland Sandfort
The following is an interview with Howser E. Sandfort concerning his grandfather, Tommy Sandfort, and his part time business of coffin making. The interview' was made at Mr. Sandfort's house on the evening of May 14, 1980.
"Grandad was a farmer... He built the caskets on the side. What he done, he used walnut logs. He cut the logs. He had the lumber sawed ahead of time. He kept a stack ahead of time all the time stacked in the barn to dry. Back then they had no power tools whatsoever. He done it all with hand tools which were inferior to what our tools are today. They were wood but they had good metal in them. You could sharpen a plane or something like that but they were wooden planes and the only piece of metal about them was the blade itself and everything else was wood and to adjust it you had to set it just right and tap it down. It would be a heck of a job to build something today with tools like them.
When people wanted a coffin they just couldn't give him a call, they would get in touch with him. They would have to go and tell him they wanted a coffin and he would build it. I think he did at one time probably build a few caskets ahead of time and have them made. A lot of people would tell him they wanted a casket when they did die and to have it ready for them and he would go ahead and build it."
He made different sizes?
"Oh yeah he made different sizes and I guess pretty will one shape. They weren't just a box - they were sort of tapered. He made a lot of them that are in the ground around here. I think he quit making them around 1918 because I remember when Grandma died - she died in 1922. I wasn't very old. As a matter of fact, I was seven years old then. We were over to their place of course and were down to his work shop and the tools weren't being used very much at that time. I can remember that because the fact of the matter was I got so interested in playing around 1n
that workshop and playing with the tools that the folks went off and left me.
Photos of Children's Coffins - Circa 1900
Small Child's Walnut Coffin
They got the kids all together - or thought they did - and had them all in the wagon and got down to the Cotton Spur which is down where Bob Vaughn lives now. That is how far they had gone when they realized they had gone off and left me. In the meantime Grandad had found me. He had harnessed up his old mules. Their names were Torn and Jerry and he hitched them up and put me in the wagon and started out. We met them corning back after me down there at the Lige Stark place which is where Dennis Gier lives now. They lived on up past the old school house in an old log house.
I remember he used screws. As I remember they must have been copper or brass. He put them together with screws. They were not ordinary screws but were brass colored and bought special for that. That is about all I can tell you. They were just plain. They would be considered very plain today. They lined them on the inside with cloth of some kind.
Honestly, I can't tell you exactly where any of them are now but there are some 1n just about every cemetery around here."
Were the trees big enough to have each board one piece?
"Yeah, he sawed big, wide lumber. He sawed big logs."
First growth timber - never cut before?
"Yeah, he sawed first growth timber and then he planed that stuff to get some smooth boards. I can remember the boards that looked two feet or more then he stacked it and air dried it. He didn't have any way to kiln dry it. Then he planed it with a hand plane to smooth it and no power saw or anything. Anything that had to be ripped or cut was done with a hand saw."
I have a hard time putting two 2 x 4's together. He didn't make that much money from it did he?
"Well it was just extra income for him, He was a farmer but he had this business on the side. II
Did many people do that?
"He was the only one I know of around here. There may have been others but. I don't know of any. Of course I was pretty young but I do know that when Grandma died and I was playing in his shop he had quit. I expect probably by then they were factory made and everyone wanted a factory made one."
Did they finish them on the outside?
Yeah. I don't remember what they put on them but they planed them smooth and put something on them but I don't know what."
They probably didn't have that much back then.
"Oh, I am sure they had varnishes but I don't know what he used. He probably used some kind of sealer or varnish of some sort."
If that walnut was dried out before he used it those things would last forever.
"Oh yes. I'll bet you there are still some of them out there today."
If those were brass screws I wonder if there was· any brass trim on them.
"Yes. There was some brass trim but I don't remember what."