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Axe Making in Oakland, Maine - Part 2

Axe Making in Oakland, Maine - Part 2

One of the best documents we have of axe making in the early 20th century is Peter Vogt’s 1965 film about the Emerson & Stevens shop in Oakland, Maine.  Not only is this short film frequently viewed on our website (and on You Tube where it just surpassed 95,000 views!) we often show it when giving presentations about the history of axe making.

For those of you that have not watched this 10-minute film we urge you to do so:

To get a little more background on the film we reached out to Peter at his home near Washington, D.C.  He has made numerous award-winning documentary films which are detailed on his website.

Peter was a student at Colby College in Waterville from 1959-1963.  He was drawn to Oakland in 1960 by his freshman roommate who was a member of Colby’s woodsmen team and needed some new axes for the team.  They traveled the short distance from the Colby campus to the Emerson & Stevens factory in Oakland.  Upon entering the shop Peter was “knocked out.”  He felt like he had traveled back in time and was witnessing axe making techniques used in the 19th century.

After he graduated from Colby in 1963, Peter was a junior Air Force motion picture officer.  As part of his training he was encouraged to use some of the Air Force’s expired 35 millimeter film stock to make films.  Remembering the evocative atmosphere of the Emerson & Stevens plant and fearing that it would not be open much longer, he returned to Oakland in 1964 to tell its story in film.

At the time the film was made, Emerson & Stevens was on its last legs.  It had only three employees – two of whom are in the film working the forge, the trip hammers and grinders making axes.  There was no evidence that the shop’s power derived from water diverted from the Messalonskee stream.  At the time the film was made the shop and its belt drive system was electrically powered.  Peter did find evidence that the shop might have been steam powered before then.

One of the funniest (scariest?) moments in film is when one of the men lights his pipe using a red-hot axe head. 

This was not staged.  Peter saw this happen and then asked the guy if he could film him relighting his pipe.  So he once again put the hot axe head to his pipe without flinching!  Kids please don't do this at home!

Post-production on the film took place at an Air Force base in Orlando, Florida.  Peter had a reservist who was a broadcaster do the narration of his script for the film.  After completing the film, it was transferred into 16 millimeter prints and sent to interested archives such as the Smithsonian, the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware and the Maine State Museum.   

Prior to the Emerson & Stevens factory being torn down in the early 1970’s Peter traveled back to Oakland to take some pictures and try and convince the Maine State Museum to take some of the shop equipment into their collection.  Sadly, this did not happen and all that remains of the Emerson & Stevens shop in Oakland is the foundation and a number of old grinding wheels laying in the Messalonskee.

We can all be thankful that Peter Vogt made this film and captured for all time the craft and skill that went into making axes at the Emerson & Stevens company.  It is truly a glimpse into another world.

Saugus Iron Works

Saugus Iron Works

On my way back to the shop in Portland I stopped to visit the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site in Saugus, Massachusetts just north of Boston.   The axe could not have been the tool that built America without the iron and steel industry.

And that industry started in coastal Massachusetts.  Operating from around 1646 – 1668, the Saugus Iron Works were the first integrated iron works in the New World.  It was largely forgotten until after World War II when the Saugus site was restored.  It opened to the public in 1954 and became a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service in 1968. 

Saugus was chosen as a perfect site for an iron works by Richard Leader in the 1640’s due to ample water power to run machinery, river access to move raw materials and finished goods, and proximity to the raw materials needed to make iron:  iron ore, gabbro for flux, and timber to make charcoal.

The iron ore that was used at Saugus was “bog iron.”  It was dug up in nearby marshy areas or pond bottoms.   This bog iron was layered with charcoal and a gabbro rock as flux material and loaded into the charge hole at the top of the blast furnace.  At Saugus the blast furnace stands 23 feet high.

Saugus Iron Works

[The Saugus Iron Works - from left to right - the blast furnace, forge and slitting mill]

[The charge hole where iron ore, gabbro (flux) and charcoal was loaded into the top of the blast furnace]

The carbon from the burning charcoal combined with the oxygen in the ore to produce carbon monoxide gas and iron.  Heat was maintained by giant, water driven bellows.

The height of the blast furnace allowed the particles of iron to absorb carbon from the charcoal as it fell to the bottom of the furnace.  The addition of carbon to the iron lowered the melting temperature of the iron allowing it to become liquid when it reached the crucible at the base of the furnace.

The liquid iron was released into a main channel hoed in sand with a number of side channels coming off it.  The term “pig iron” is thought to have originated due to the pattern of small channels connecting to the main one looking like piglets suckling off a sow.

[Crucible opening at bottom of blast furnace with rows dug in sand to create the "sows"]

The cast iron coming out of the blast furnace was too brittle to be worked so  the “sow bars” would then be taken to the finery.  Here the sow bars were reheated to burn out the unwanted carbon and beaten with sledge hammers to remove any slag.  Finally, the iron was shaped using a 500 lb. hammer to create “wrought iron” bars.  These bars could be sold as raw material or, at Saugus, moved to the rolling and slitting mill to make nails or iron strips.

[wrought iron bars finished in the finery]

It was these wrought iron bars that were used by blacksmiths to make the axes to cut down timber to make the charcoal to make the iron to make the axes used in Colonial America.

The National Park Service has a great short film on iron making at Saugus.  You can watch it here.  If you find yourself in the Boston area the Saugus Iron Works prove a great journey into our industrial past. 

Plan your trip at the National Park Service Saugus Iron Works website.

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]