Man with a passion for hammers opens unique museum in Haines

Exhibit started as a 'bad habit,' became collection of hundreds

Posted: Monday, August 13, 2007

Over the past two decades, Haines resident Dave Pahl transformed his fascination with tools and history into a museum that may boast the world's premier collection of hammers.

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Visitors to Haines can find his building easily enough: Just look for the gigantic hammer in the yard. A man with big dreams, Pahl hopes to keep expanding his supply.

"It's a hammer collection, but I like to think of it more that we're collecting history," Pahl said.

Pahl, 53, moved to Haines in 1980 when he won a plot of land in the Alaska homestead lottery. He had what he described as "pioneer dreams" to be self-sufficient and build a log cabin in the woods. He worked as a blacksmith and copper-crafter, learning that it took a lot of hammers. He started collecting them.

"It really became a bad habit in the mid-1980s," he joked.

A family vacation with wife Carol and his two sons revealed the glories of antique shops and flea markets.

"That's when somebody should have stopped me," he said. "I had no idea it would turn into what it has. I set out with no plan, very casual about the whole thing."

In the years that followed, he amassed a huge number of tools. He opened a museum in 2001 in downtown Haines, hanging hammers on the walls. The extent of it all can be mind-boggling, since the tools represent tasks and professions that are long-since extinct.

"The history is disappearing, and somebody has to keep it alive," he said. "We've taken on the challenge."

He gathered hammers for leveling type in old printing presses, and hammers for cobblers, judges and bankers. He found hammers for harvesting oysters, repairing brass horns, breaking ice, testing train wheels, making barrels, making brooms and cashing checks. And that's just a fraction of the total.

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In 2001, he had about 900. Now he has about 1,700. He intends to expand the building to hold more of them - and house an intern.

"It's more than just, 'Come and see the hammer collection,'" Pahl said. "We like to push the history, which turns it into something of interest to everybody."

He recently started an internship program, which generated interest all over the world. Of 28 applicants, he settled on an anthropology student from Kentucky, Kathy McCardwell. After her internship ended this month, he brought in a history major from California, Matt Maehler.

The nonprofit museum relies on volunteers and has no paid staff. It survives on $3 admission and T-shirt sales.

"We barely make ends meet," he said. "We're hoping to some day attract a corporate sponsor."

On a recent summer day, he led a tour through the shop. Clearly enthusiastic about the tools and the history, he pointed out especially odd hammers or ones with funny stories. One hammer was for candy, nuts and sugar; another was for making cigar boxes.

"The hammers represent trades that have pretty well vanished," he said. "It's our mission to preserve the history of the hammers and share it with our guests."

• Contact Ken Lewis at 523-2263 or

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