The washboard has a storied history in American life. Any visit to a museum of early American life in any state will likely feature a variety of washboards lining the walls. More than wall décor, washboards maintained vital utility for everyone from trailblazing settlers to young families on the Prairie, and the tools were gender-neutral, employed by cowhands on the ranch and society ladies, or their servants.

Fans of Americana and bluegrass music can still delight to the clickety-clack of washboards sounds at countless festivals, and Logan, Ohio celebrates an annual festival solely devoted to the musical adaptation of the washboard.

Everyone from students eager to learn the technique of playing the washboard and its nuance to those wanting to see and sense the feel of wood and metal in creating something still so meaningful are welcome. On September 2 “Sunday Morning,” correspondent Conor Knighton visited the southeastern Ohio locale to meet the woman who owns the last washboard company in America and continues to keep the appreciation of the worthy gadget growing.

A new owner thriving amidst old history

Jacqui Barnett was quizzical and simultaneously intrigued by the proposal, from a friend, that she and her husband might be interested in buying a washboard company in Columbus, Ohio. She openly admits her affinity for history and “old machinery,” and something about owning the last company of its kind held irrepressible appeal for her.

The Columbus Washboard Company was founded in 1895, and at its peak, was shipping one million washboards a day throughout America. Barnett describes that train cars literally would back up to the manufacturer’s docks to be loaded. No doubt, Jacqui Barnett knows something about washing clothes and fabrics, moving to Ohio from New Zealand in 1980, and working as a seamstress when her destiny was changed by corrugated metal.

In 1999, Barnett relocated the company to Logan.

The first electric washing machine was invented in 1908, but it was not until electricity started to become available in homes, on a more wide-scale basis in the 1920s-30s, that the labor-intensive means of scrubbing laundry to cleanliness really lost its appeal. Washboard companies went out of business, one by one, but the inherent musical appeal of the simple device continued.

The Washboard Rhythm Kings were one of the groups that brought the riffs of friction against metal from plantations into jazz clubs, and Washboard Hank, a premiere star at the festival, insists that “if you have hands, you can play the washboard.” The correspondent and those challenged in physical dexterity find that assurance dubious, but Jacqui Barnett is as willing to provide a music lesson with her washboards as she is to lead a tour through her company, and she even teaches the best techniques for clothing cleanliness, washboard-style.

Not just a relic of bygone days

Washboard Hank makes his living as a full-time performer with his instrument, which carries quite a few embellishments including bells, whistles, and even a duck call - all of which he garnered from various places.

He doesn't have a “washboard-shaped swimming pool,” but it’s plain to see that audiences love the simple delights of the unique washboard rhythm, and rise up from their seats for a dance and a laugh. Barnett estimates that 40 percent of her current business is focused on musical washboards, and the company creates various models and uses stainless steel for more sustained use. Thimbles or thimble gloves are usually preferred to save fingertips and nails, and couples travel many miles just to “learn the art” of the washboard in Logan. Ohio.

One of the most meaningful outreaches of her product is to soldiers deployed in wartime areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, where the grit of blowing sand gets to every centimeter of clothing and the body while “on the mission” daily.

In these conditions, cleanliness, in any semblance, is welcome. Jacqui Barnett, again, provides tutoring in kits that include washboards, detergent, and full instructions on how to use her product, all free of charge, and shipped out to the soldiers through donations. Photos sent in return portray their gratitude.

The business owner doesn't dismiss the idea that washboards could be needed in the future, and even declares, “I’ll know how to use one.”

Jacqui Barnett doesn't mind taking the stage for an occasional, toe-tapping tune on her washboard, but she never wants anyone to forget that this simple tool still has meaning and purpose, in more ways than one.