At this point we are all familiar with Peter Vogt’s iconic 1965 film “Pioneer Axe” depicting work inside Oakland’s Emerson & Stevens company. In our research at the Oakland Public Library we found a number of rarely seen color photographs of the Emerson & Stevens Company. We confirmed with Mr. Vogt that he took these pictures in 1964 when making the movie and others in 1967 when he returned to Oakland after Emerson & Stevens had closed.
The interior color shots give us a new perspective on axe making at Emerson & Stevens. We can clearly see the way in which Emerson & Stevens overlaid and forge welded a harder steel bit over the softer poll steel to create their axes.
By 1967 though the forges were cold, the hammers quiet and the plant closed.
This building is gone. Now only only the foundation of the Emerson & Stevens buildings remain along the Messalonskee stream south of the School Street bridge in Oakland.
[Picture from Oakland Library Collection 2011]
For historical perspective, here is what the stream looked like from roughly this vantage point in 1910 with the Emerson & Stevens factory on the right and the American Axe Company (formerly Hubbard & Blake) across the stream.
You can keep the legacy of Emerson & Stevens alive (or at least wear it on your chest!) by picking up one of our Lumberman’s Pride T-shirts from our on-line store. These logo on the T-shirt is from one of the original Emerson & Stevens axe labels. Get one here.
Thanks to the Oakland Public Library, the Oakland Historical Society and Peter Vogt for the use of these pictures!
When Mark Spiller moved to Maine from New Brunswick in 1890 he was already an accomplished axe maker who hailed from a family who had been making edge tools since 1815. In 1902, he went to work for Emerson & Stevens in Oakland specializing in tempering their hand-hammered axes. Mark’s son Norman got into the family business too as the 1911 Oakland Directory attests:
In 1926, the Spillers struck out on their own, bought some land on the Messalonskee Stream, built a new factory site there and began making axes as M.D. Spiller & Son Co. Mark concentrated on tempering the axes that his son Norman forged.
1937 saw the company change its name to Spiller Axe & Tool Co, Inc. as Norman’s son Harold entered the business. However, Mark did not slow down now that his grandson was working in the shop at his side. He still came to work every day well into his mid-80’s doing all the axe tempering and hardening for the 700 axes the shop churned out per week.
[From a story in The Portland Sunday Telegram 2/21/37]
The axes made by the Spillers are still some of the most collectible of those made in Oakland. The Maine Easy Cut, Chopper’s Choice, Premier and Victory Axe are among the great brands made by the company.
The Spillers actively marketed their business. Holdings in the Oakland Historical Society are replete with examples of advertising copy for the company like this brochure depicting all of the types of axes made by the company:
A display card for Spiller Axe & Tool:
And maybe the most interesting find at the Historical Society were the intricate copper plates used for typesetting pictures of the Spiller axes and labels.
Mark Spiller passed away at age 93 in 1945. His son Norman and grandson Harold continued the business until 1965. This ended more than 150 years of axe making by the Spiller family.
Brant & Cochran pays homage to the legacy of axe making in Oakland with its line of T-shirts depicting reproductions of labels used on Spiller axes.
You can pick up a T-shirt with the Maine Easy Cut logo
Or maybe a Chopper’s Choice?
Both of these are available in our on-line store. Get one here.
Thanks to the Oakland Historical Society and Oakland Public Library for opening up their archives to us. Stay tuned for more on the axe makers of Oakland!
Making an axe handle seems simple enough. Take a piece of wood, cut a pattern, and carve it into shape. Easy. Well, not quite. In the late 1800’s, edge tool makers were cranking out thousands of axes a day. Hand carving handles could never keep up with demand. A simple lathe could not be used since axe handles were not round, but flatter on one side. Additionally, most single bit handles were curved.
The problem was solved by lumber mill owner George Ober of Chagrin Falls, Ohio who invented a revolutionary duplicating lathe bringing mass production to making axe and other irregularly shaped tool handles.
George Ober went into the lumber business with his brother John in 1862 in South Newbury, Ohio about 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. The brothers’ saw mill made handles, wagon spokes and coffins. In 1865, George received patent number 48,428 for a duplicating lathe that produced irregularly shaped pieces like handles.
Over the years, Ober improved his duplicating lathe and received five more patents between 1867 and 1897. A list of the patents and links to the USPTO filings can be found here.
In 1890, George took to the road to sell his lathes. He traveled throughout the country as the sole salesman and installer. His lathes were shipped to Mexico, Argentina, Scotland, England, Australia and Belgium.
In addition to lathes, the company made irons, trivets, toys and wood products such as axe and other wooden handles.
[Ober Co. Price List 1894]
George Ober died on December 10,1903 and his son Archie took the helm. Business continued to get better for the Ober company leading to talks of moving the company to new facilities in Muncie, Indiana. In a story replayed today by NFL owners, in 1909 Archie asked the community and employees to chip in to keep the company in Chagrin Falls. A subscription drive was held raising $7,000 and Ober stayed put.
[1909 Subscription Agreement]
By the 1920’s the sales of lathes began to dwindle. Archie Ober attributed this to the fact “we made our machines to wear too well.” The company never really recovered from the years of the Great Depression. By the 1950’s the company had ceased manufacturing lathes and was operating as a simple machine shop by Archie’s son Gale. When Gale died in 1959, the Ober Manufacturing Company died too. The property was sold and buildings razed. Only the machine shop building remains from the nearly 37,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
[Picture from collection of Chagrin Falls Historical Society]
While the Ober Manufacturing Company may be gone its lathes are not. They are still being used today in some cases more than 100 years after they were made. This is a true testament to the quality, craftsmanship and care which went into the making of these machines.
There are a number of videos showing these lathes being used yet.
Click here to watch a video showing a single bit axe handle being turned by an Ober lathe.
The lathe can also be used to turn other irregular shaped wood articles such as walking sticks.
And if you know of anyone that wants to sell an Ober lathe, please have them give us a call!