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.