A good case can be made that Australian Peter McLaren (1882-1953) is the father of axe competitions in the United States. He was also a celebrity spokesman for Plumb axes – especially the “Champion Axe” - and author of the much referred to Axe Manual of Peter McLaren. Heck, he even had a children’s book written about him in 1988, The Sky Between The Trees. What made McLaren the LeBron James of the chopping world?
McLaren began competing at 16 and won his first championships in Dyalesford, Victoria in April 1906 (cutting a 20” log in 2:12) and another in November that same year in Perth, West Australia.
His love affair with America started a few years later. The first notice we can find of his travels to the U.S. is in the February 6, 1912 edition of the West Gippsland Gazette (Warrugal, Victoria). The speed at which McLaren and his countryman Harry Jackson chopped through logs at a Denver exhibition in November 1911 gave rise to claims that the logs were “prepared.” Of course, the Aussies would not take this affront to their honor lying down.
“Assistant City Forester Lederer took up the matter and designated a tall cottonwood in front of the residence of Hans Nelson, at 259 Race Street. It grew in the park between the sidewalk and the street. News of the chopping exhibition spread, and a large crowd was on hand at 9 o'clock this morning when Jackson and McLaren went to the place. The men took one glance at the tree, threw off their coats and collars, and took up their axes. They told the crowd where the trunk would fall and then went to work. Before the spectators were able to get a look at the axemen, the tree cracked, toppled and then fell into the street at a point six inches from the spot the choppers designated. Then the men went to work upon the trunk and cut it into sections. They averaged 1min 40 sec for every cut they made through the thickest part of the trunk. The crowd was still gasping in wonder when they put on their coats, climbed into a taxi cab and hurried away."
The 1920’s saw McLaren continue to travel to the United States, put on chopping exhibitions, and start his relationship with Plumb. The Fayette R. Plumb company of Philadelphia had been making axes and other tools since the 1880’s. According to McLaren, Plumb axes were predominantly used in Australian chopping competitions. It makes sense that he became their spokesman in the U.S.
A February 1929 ad for Plumb axes in Boys’ Life details McLaren’s chopping feats at events in North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Missouri. It also touts his prowess at axe throwing: he split a wood chip using a small scout axe (Plumb brand of course!) from 42’ away.
It was also about this time that McLaren wrote what is still used today as a resource for axe aficionados: The Axe Manual of Peter McLaren – America’s Champion Chopper. This short book published in 1929 by Plumb (parts of which are available online).
It covers such subjects as how to sharpen and care for your axe, how to fell a tree, and put on chopping contests.
McLaren’s barnstorming of America continued into the 1930’s. Examples of these events can be found in newspaper articles from Skanateles, NY in November 1936 and North Creek, NY in August 1938 in which McLaren offered a prize of $50 if he could not chop through a log in 2/3 of his competitor’s best time. His only stipulation was that they not have an “unfair advantage” by using a Plumb axe. What a good company man!
His association with Plumb naturally led to him having his own axe. Plumb’s “Champion Axe” with what most believe is McLaren’s relief on the blade was introduced in the 1920’s and produced into the early 1940’s.
Plumb’s Champion Axe was advertised for “expert choppers” although it was not made specifically for competitions. It does though bear quite a resemblance to today’s racing axes sold by makers such as New Zealand’s Tuatahi.
Peter McLaren died in Australia at the age of 71 in November 1953 but his legacy lives on in today’s collegiate and professional woodsmen’s competitions and in the knowledge passed down through his Manual which is still used as a reference.