Guesses from Facebook included fishing pole, insect net, rug beater, and a tool for mixing lye into a kettle to make soap (so appropriate after the post from earlier this month)!
Those were all good guesses as to the function of this object, but it's use was not a domestic one. This item is called an order hoop, and it was used for "hooping up" trains. Dispatchers would tie the train's orders to a hoop like the one above, so that they could easily be slipped off. Then, as the train passed, the engineer and/or conductor could stick his arm through the cane hoop to catch it, slip the train's orders off, then toss the hoop off the train so that it could be recovered and reused.
This video, created by the local Monticello Railway Museum, shows the process being done by a similar method.
In the MRYM video, the "hooping up" is being done using an order fork, similar in function to the hoop in our collection. From my research, it appears that even after the form changed, these artifacts were still being called "hoops" and "hooping up" appears to be standard terminology among the railroad-savvy.
As I mentioned in the original post, this artifact was suggested to me by our registrar, Tom Meachum. He has a personal connection to this artifact as his father was a conductor on the railroads when Tom was young. Here is the story in his words:
"He was a conductor. He would catch the hoop on his arm and take the message off, but it was a little more modern than [our artifact]. I think they were made of aluminum at the time. There was a time when the hoop was like this." (Tom shows a sketch of a V-shaped dispatch "hoop" with a string connecting the tips of the 'V'). "And they would run their arm through here and catch the string on their elbow. And the orders were tied to the string."
Tom also remembered that the hoop would smack his father's upper arm hard, and so the railroad men who caught the hoops would wear clothing with padded sleeves!
He also brought in this lovely artifact to share with readers:
This is Tom's father's watch, purchased at great expense so that it would keep accurate time while he was working on the trains. "I don't remember the exact year [it was purchased], but it was before I was born in the early 1940s, or before the war. It was over $100, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days."
Tom mentioned that he, his siblings, and all of his children used this watch to cut their baby teeth, and that his father was appalled after one trip to the jeweler, who proudly boasted that he had buffed all the scratches out!
This illustrates an important point - that while objects might have inherent value in and of themselves, their true worth is in the story. We attach significance to objects based on the meanings we assign them, and in the case of an heirloom like Tom's father's watch, that meaning is beyond price.