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"Turn, Turn, Turn" - The Ober Duplicating Handle Lathe

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!

Resources:

The History of the Ober Manufacturing Company of Chagrin Falls 1862-1959 by Don Barriball, Chagrin Falls Historical Society, 2007

Collections of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society

US Patent and Trademark Office

 

Secrets of the Emerson & Stevens Company

Secrets of the Emerson & Stevens Company

Old black & white pictures, moldy leather-bound ledgers, thousands of jumbled penny postcards, carbon copies of letters (remember carbon paper?), and invoices are among the artifacts that we reviewed at the University of Maine's Fogler Library, the Oakland Area Historical Society and the Oakland Public Library earlier this month.  These items gave us a new glimpse into the workings of the iconic Emerson & Stevens axe company from the 1880's into the 1940's.  

While there are still a lot of records to review (another 80 boxes at the University of Maine alone!) we were able to glean some of these nuggets of company history and a few interesting anecdotes.

1.  In 1886, Emerson & Stevens along with many of the other large axe companies entered into a price fixing agreement.  Among the correspondence files were letters from the secretary at the Douglas Axe Company of Boston to Emerson & Stevens documenting an agreement among Oakland axe manufacturers Emerson & Steve and Hubbard & Blake, and other prominent axe makers such as The Collins Company, William Mann to set the price of axes at no less than $6.00 per dozen.   There was a similar agreement among the scythe manufacturers.  

2.  While the Oakland axe companies competed head to head they also cooperated extensively with each other.  Invoices show evidence of the companies selling polls (the axe head without the hardened steel bit), handles and shipping boxes to each other when one company was short.  They minimized freight costs by buying entire train cars full of steel then dividing it among themselves.  There is also a lot of correspondence between the Oakland companies trading employees and vetting new hires.  Below is an example of a steel order split between Emerson & Stevens, Spiller, and King Axe.

3.  Axe handles were sourced from multiple makers and made out of many different types of wood.  Emerson & Stevens got handles from makers in Maine such as Lemuel Cotton of Hiram, Gammon Handle of Lovell, and Jacquith of Clinton and from out of state companies such as Link in Indiana, Railway Handle of Virginia, and Piper Handle in New Hampshire.  The wood used was not just hickory, but maple and "azure oak,"  There  is also mention of "French Favorite" and "French Special" axe handle patterns.  Another kick is seeing the price for handles on these invoices.  In 1920 Lemuel Cotton of Hiram, Maine was selling them for $2.50 and $3.50 PER DOZEN!

4.  Salesmen will be salesmen.  Some of the most amusing correspondence in the records was that between Emerson & Stevens salesman (and axe company owner)  J.H. Witherell and the home office from the late 1870's.  It was customary for a traveling salesman like Witherell to write to the home office nightly on hotel stationary giving an update on his progress.  The complaints lodged by Witherell will be familiar to salespeople of today:  "when are you going to ship my orders," "I'm getting reports that quality is not up to snuff," "when can I expect my commission check."  Here is an example of one of these letters where you can feel the exasperation of the traveling salesman.

5.  Invoices for Labels Date the Manufacture of Certain Brands.  We know that Emerson & Stevens made axes under a number of trade names.  Invoices from label makers allow us to date when these brands were being produced.  In 1940 they were making axes under the Witherell, Lumberman's Pride, and Forest King names.  1944 saw the Pine Tree, Diamond and Damon brands used.  The Forest King and Lumberman's Pride brands were still being used in 1946.  Here is an order for Forest King printing plates from 1940:

6. Anecdote #1 - In 1904, Emerson & Stevens sold axes to the Indianapolis hardware store owned by author Kurt Vonnegut's great uncle.  

7.  Anecdote #2 -  Emerson & Stevens was still buying thousands of pounds of "Pure Messalonskee Lake Ice" to cool their lunches into 1940 (at $.40/lb.).  

We will keep digging and hope to produce a comprehensive history of Emerson & Stevens and other Maine axe companies in the coming years.  But this was a great start.  

Thanks to the staff at the Fogler Library at the University of Maine in Orono, the Oakland Area Historical Society and the Oakland Public Library for opening their doors to us and making all these materials available.  We'll be back!

The Legacy of the Collins Company

The Legacy of the Collins Company

In mid-July we visited the remains of the Collins Company in Collinsville, Connecticut.  In the late 1800’s, the Collins Company was the largest integrated axe manufacturer in the world. 

Founder Samuel Collins’ vision of a global edge tool company built on the banks of the Farmington River is still in evidence today.

[Packing Shop and Bell Tower Building]

Samuel, his brother David, and cousin William Wells bought a five-acre site in what was then South Canton, Connecticut in 1826.  Samuel’s insistence on making the best quality axes and selling them sharpened, honed and hafted led to quick company growth.  In 1826 eight employees were making around eight axes a day.  By 1828, trip hammers were introduced to speed production; by 1832 they had built 35 houses for their growing workforce and renamed the town Colllinsville; by 1845 they were producing machetes and other edge tools for the South and Central American markets; in 1859 the company sold pikes to John Brown which were used in his attack on Harper's Ferry; by 1864 steam powered the trip hammers making swords and bayonets for the Union in the Civil War.  At the time of Samuel Collins death in 1871 the company had made 15 million axes and had annual sales of $1 million.

Twenty-eight of the original buildings remain of the original Collins factory.  Many others were destroyed in a disastrous flood in 1955.  The complex was laid out along the river with the casting operations to the south, the forging and finishing taking place in the center and the packing and shipping operations on the north side by the railroad depot. 

[Polishing Shop]

The Collins Company made much more than axes.  They made scythes, adzes, plows, bayonets, sabers and Bowie knives.  For the South and Central American markets they made 150 varieties of machetes and other specialty tools for fruit harvesting.  Axes were made in Michigan, Connecticut, Dayton and Yankee patterns.  Double bit axes and hatchets were also in among the 1,300 edge tools in its product line.

[One of many displays at the Canton Historical Society Museum, Collinsville, CT]

The Collins Company was also known for its “Legitimus” trademark which was put not only on axes but on its other edge tools. 

The quality and popularity of Collins’ products led the company to vigorously defend the Legitimus mark against counterfeits and also forego paper labels to have the mark stamped on its products.  In addition to the Legitimus brand, Collins marketed its products under the Dynamicut, King, Homestead, Old Timer, Hercules, Red Seal and Commander names.

A devastating flood in 1955 destroyed one-third of the buildings at the Collins factory.  It was a loss from which the company never really recovered.  In 1966, operations ceased in Collinsville.  The domestic business was sold to Mann Edge Tool of Lewistown, Pennsylvania.  It’s South American operations were sold to Stanley Tool.  The site is now home to about 40 tenants including an antique shop, artist studios, carpentry and wood working businesses. 

The Canton Historical Society housed in the old Collins plow shop has many great displays on the company, its product, and local history. 

N.B.   The museum also had a working comptrometer which was an early version of a calculator.  My Grandmother Doughty used one of these in the 1930's to figure payroll at the Westinghouse Air Brake plant in Wilmerding, PA!