Last-of-its-kind vintage woodworking machine makes 2,300-mile trip to Bethlehem’s National Museum of Industrial History​

After sitting nearly 40 years untouched in a farm field in rural Montana before being refurbished and transported more than 2,000 miles across the country, a last-of-its-kind vintage woodworking machine is finally settled in its permanent home at the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem.

The 3-ton, fully restored Greenlee No. 576 Heavy 16-inch Variety Woodworker began its journey to Bethlehem on May 18 and was delivered to the museum Thursday morning, dropped off by Steve Williams of Kalispell, Montana, who spent two years painstakingly restoring the machine.

Williams, who bought the machine in 2018, recognized how valuable it was and knew it needed to be on public display, so he contacted the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which put him in contact with the National Museum of Industrial History.

Thursday morning, an industrial forklift moved the machine off of a box truck, and pallet jacks were used to bring it to its resting place in the museum’s temporary gallery.

Williams, the owner of Montana Handmade, has a passion for restoring and utilizing vintage woodworking machines. He keeps a running ad on Craigslist that says “vintage machinery wanted.”

That led him to cabinetmaker Norm Anderson, who in 2018 contacted Williams and told him he had the machine in his possession for nearly 40 years.

Williams said there were rumors on the online woodworking machine forums about a Greenlee Variety Woodworker that was out in a field somewhere, or in an old barn. When Anderson contacted Williams, he immediately asked if the machine had the Greenlee badge, which it did.

“I knew it was the holy grail of vintage woodworking machines,” Williams said.

He soon made the 200-mile trip to pick it up from a 5,000-acre farm just outside of Canada.

The machine had been at the farm since 1979, when Anderson bought it during a liquidation sale of the Anaconda Copper Co.

Anderson fell in love with the machine and its incredible condition, but when he arrived home he realized it wouldn’t fit through the door of his shop.

He took it north to his brother-in-law’s farm, where it was covered in 10 gallons of lard to help preserve it and packaged away in a custom wood crate. It was virtually forgotten for the next 39 years until Williams bought it.

“It was shockingly beautiful in its complexity,” Williams said of the first time he saw the machine. “It was incredibly well preserved.”

The machine was purchased new by the Anaconda Copper Co. in 1910 from Greenlee in Rockford, Illinois, and was used for 70 years until Anaconda closed. The Greenlee Co. was started in 1862 in Chicago by identical twin brothers Ralph and Robert Greenlee, who were originally from Crawford County in western Pennsylvania.

Williams said patternmakers only used the finest machinery and large manufacturing companies like Anaconda Copper could afford the best, which meant a Greenlee was the only choice.

The Greenlee was used for tasks like wood planing and cutting notches in wood. It could also create patterns that would then be used to cast parts like cogs and gears out of metal.

Through his research at the Montana Historical Society, Williams surmised that this was probably the last remaining example of a Greenlee No. 576 Heavy 16-inch Variety Woodworker.

A query through the almost 50,000 member Old Wood Working Machines forum yielded no other evidence of such a machine, Williams said.

When Williams contacted the Greenlee Co., now owned by Emerson Electric Co., the project truly took off.

Once they found out what was going on, Emerson decided to fully fund the restoration effort and contacted the National Museum of Industrial History to arrange to have the machine put on display there.

Williams estimates he spent 1,500 hours on restoring the machine, a process that included photographing and cataloging hundreds of parts, cleaning them and recalibrating them after the machine was reassembled.

Glenn Koehler, director of marketing and public relations at the National Museum of Industrial History, said the machine will be a perfect addition to the museum’s collection, which includes foot-powered woodworking machines and line shafts.

The Greenlee shows the continued evolution of woodworking in that it can perform up to a dozen functions, but as one machine takes up much less space.

“It’s really exciting because I don’t know if I’d ever find another one like this,” museum historian Mike Pierasa said.

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