The Story of Lemuel Cotton and the "Ebonoak Handle"

Following the trend of our last blog posts on axe handles we thought we would share the story of Hiram, Maine’s Lemuel Cotton and his “Ebonoake” handles.  It is a story about unintended discovery, Yankee ingenuity, and clever marketing.

Lemuel Cotton began whittling oak axe handles at his house in Western Maine in the 1870’s.  The axe handle business got good for Lemuel and he moved his shop into the Village of Hiram.  By 1905 business was so good that he employed eight men making more 30,000 handles a year.

From old invoices, we know that Cotton sold axe handles made from white oak, red oak, and maple.  But they also sold handles made out of “Ebonoak.”

Of course, “Ebonoak” was not some new species of oak discovered in the forests of Western Maine.  The Cottons kept its white oak "seconds" handles in the sacks in the barn occupied by the family's horse.  When doing inventory of these seconds Lemuel’s grandson Raymond noticed that the white oak handles had turned rich dark brown.  Company manager, Raymond's uncle, Cad Lombard thought it had something to do with the ammonia fumes from the horse dung in the barn.

Raymond thought that these dark colored handles might be just the thing to fight off the rising popularity of hickory handles that was eating into company sales.   He experimented by laying a white oak handle in a sealed box with some ammonia poured into a tin pan.  Three days later he opened the box, and the handle emerged black.  When Raymond showed the dark handles to head finisher Almon Storer he said "Looks something like oak, but it ain't never seen no oak like that.  It kinda looks like ebony."  The “Ebonoak” handle was born.

His new handle needed a dramatic logo so Raymond headed to an advertising firm and worked on a label that would contrast with the dark finish of the handles.  While we are unaware of any still existing Ebonoak labels, Raymond describes the label to look something like this (apologies to Raymond Cotton!):

While company manager Cad Lombard did not think the new handles were “worth a tinker’s damn” Raymond decided to hit the bricks to try and sell his Ebonoak handles.  His success with Portland hardware stores and distributors such as Edwards & Walker Company and Talbot, Brooks & Ayer and throughout New England put the Cotton handle company back in the black. 

The double whammy of the Depression and World War II spelled the end for the Lemuel Cotton & Son Company.  Convinced that they could not make any money due to price controls put in place during WWII, the Cotton handle business closed.  John King of Oakland bought out the equipment (including an Ober duplicating lathe – see our earlier blog post about this unique machine). 

More detail on the Cotton handle company and the Ebonoak handle can be found in the booklet Split, Rive and Whittle:  The Story of Lemuel Cotton’s Axe Handle Shop by Raymond C. Cotton published by the Hiram Historical Society in 1989.

And if anyone out there has a copy or picture of a real Ebonoak label please share!