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Axe Making in Oakland, Maine - Part 1

Axe Making in Oakland, Maine - Part 1

No discussion of axe manufacturing in Maine can take place without reviewing the important role of Oakland, Maine.  This town of about 2,000 people in 1900 could boast of a dozen axe and edge tool companies – some of which are among the most iconic axe makers in the United States.

Over the course of several posts we will explore what made Oakland the center of axe making in Maine, the history of some of its most famous axe makers, and look at the brands and labels that are coveted by collectors today.

Oakland sits about twenty miles north of Augusta and four miles west of Waterville in Kennebec County.

[Image from Google Maps]

The town started as part of Waterville, breaking away and becoming the town of West Waterville in 1873.  In 1883, the town was renamed Oakland.  It became an edge tool manufacturing center for two reasons:  the power generated by the Messalonskee Stream and the presence of the Maine Central Railroad.

The Messalonskee Stream pours out of Messalonskee Lake south of downtown Oakland and empties into the Kennebec river in Waterville.  But it is the mile length of stream from Messalonskee Lake at Libby Hill Road (Augusta Road on older maps) to Route 11/Kennedy Memorial Drive (Waterville Road on older maps) that was of interest to edge tool makers.  Over this stretch the stream falls 110 feet of which the most dramatic drop is the 100-foot cascade near Kennedy Memorial Drive.  This powered the mills, factories and shops of Oakland.

Water power alone would not drive manufacturing growth in Oakland.  It needed a way to reliably get its goods to market.  This last piece of this puzzle was solved when the Maine Central Railroad came to Oakland in 1849.  The axes, scythes and hay knives of Oakland could now get to markets in Portland, Boston and beyond.

Smaller edge tool makers had been working along the Messalonskee prior to the Civil War.  But it is in the 1870’s that the making of axes in Oakland begins to accelerate.  Companies like Dunn Edge Tool, Emerson & Stevens, and Hubbard & Blake are making hundreds of thousands of axes per year by 1880.  At the turn of the century more than a dozen companies are engaged in the edge tool business making Oakland, Maine the center of the axe making industry in Maine and arguably the United States.  All of this along a one mile stretch of a stream in Kennebec County.

1905 Photo of Emerson & Stevens shop looking south from the School Street Bridge

Stay tuned . . . we will look at the stories behind some of these axe companies next time.

[Images courtesy of Oakland Historical Society]