Stonehill College may be the only school where the graduating seniors adopt a class shovel. The tradition came about because the Easton, Mass., institution is home to what's commonly called "the shovel museum," a collection of more than 750 shovels – some dating back to the 18th century – made by the Ames Shovel Works in Easton. (The college sits on the former Ames family estate.)

The Industrial History Collection – as the museum is officially named – is more than a big tool crib. Because Ames shovels were used in the Civil War, during the California Gold Rush, and for the construction of the Trans-continental Railroad, the displays help tell the story of how people in that era lived and worked. The company was a pioneer in mass-production techniques and at one point supplied 60 percent of the shovels used worldwide.

Although the collection's main value is as a primary source for historical researchers, anyone can request a visit. Curator Nicole Casper gives personalized tours to 150 to 200 people per year.

Anyone who takes the tour is bound to notice that these people take good care of their tools. The iron-bladed shovels are neatly placed in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, on rows of plywood shelves lined with Styrofoam to keep the wood from interacting with the metal. A few years ago the college received a grant to carefully restore, measure, and give a unique ID to each of them – a project that took 18 months.

Tour-goers also come away with the realization that just as there's a wrench for every nut, there's apparently a shovel for every type of hole. The most popular model with students, Casper says, is a potato shovel on display in the lobby, but there are also coffee, coal, and concrete shovels; double-handled shovels; telegraph scoops with 10-foot-long handles; and entrenching tools used by the military in World War II. One of the latter, a 1942 T-handle, was selected as this year's class shovel.

Despite all the painstaking research, the collection includes a number of mystery shovels whose purposes remain unclear. "We haven't been able to identify them," says Casper, who adds that the museum's next big project is to solve that mystery. "We're hoping some tool enthusiast will volunteer to help us." Any takers?

Charles Wardell writes about building from Tisbury, Mass.