HISTORY OF AXE MAKING
Axes have been a fundamental tool for thousands of years, shaping civilizations and contributing to human progress. Originating in prehistoric times, early axes were crafted from stone eventually evolving into metal-headed tools.
Axes were essential tools for American colonists. The virgin forests of North America supplied wood for homes, ship building, and cook fires leading to an explosion of axe manufacturing. The story of how axes evolved from the simple trade axe to the many different patterns available by the late 1800’s is fascinating for axe aficionados and history buffs alike.
The American axe industry traces its roots back to the first blacksmith shop at the Jamestown colony in the early 1600’s.
The need for and development of a truly American axe was driven by the vast stands of virgin timber that needed to be cut and the DIY mentality of the early settlers. The French trade axe, a poll-less hatchet too small for felling, was produced to trade with Native Americans. A variation of this axe is the Hudson Bay axe – still produced today.
In 1826, the Collins Axe Company in Collinsville, Connecticut became one of the first large forging operations in the United States. Other famous axe makers whose axes can still be found, restored, and used today are ones from Kelly, Mann Edge Tool, Plumb, Spiller, Emerson & Stevens, and Vaughn.
Check out our blog post with additional detail on the largest integrated edge tool company in the world at the time: The Legacy of the Collins Company
An extensive collection of information on axe manufacturers, their products, and the various labels, embossing, and trademarks can be found at YesteryearsTools.
Other sources of information on axe manufacturers can be found in:
- American Axe, Brett McLeod, Storey Publishing (2020)
- American Axes, Henry J. Kauffman, Masthof Press (2007)
- Axe Makers of North America, Allen Klenman, Copy Factory LLC (2nd Edition 2006)
- Buchanan-Smith's Axe Handbook, Abrams Image (2021)
Axe Making in Maine
Maine’s first settlers used axe-making techniques and tools developed in Europe. In colonial times, axes were made for farmers to clear land and for loggers to harvest wood most notably white pine for the masts of English seafaring ships.
By the mid-1800s, Maine was a buzzing hub for axe manufacturers, powered chiefly by water wheels on the Messalonskee Stream in Oakland. In 1873, a small part of Waterville, Maine broke away and was renamed West Waterville. Later, in 1883, the town was renamed Oakland.
Due to the power generated by the Messalonskee Stream and the town’s proximity to the Maine Central Railroad, Oakland became the center of edge tool manufacturing. Ultimately, the railroad paved the way for Maine to be a leading producer of axes and scythes as they could move products all across the United States.
In Oakland, Maine with a population of around 2,000 in 1900 supported more than a dozen axe factories including Emerson & Stevens, Spiller, and Dunn Edge Tool – some of today’s most sought-after vintage axes.
Production at Emerson & Stevens shop in Oakland was captured in this film made by Peter Vogt in 1964 just months before the company ceased production. It is a fascinating glimpse into the way axes were made by Maine craftsmen.
More detailed information on axe making in Maine, the stories behind the companies, and their famous brands can be found in our posts:
- Axe Making in Oakland, Maine - Part 1
- Axe Making in Oakland, Maine - Part 2
- Secrets of the Emerson & Stevens Company
- "All In The Family" - The Spiller Axe Company of Oakland, Maine
- Color Photos of Emerson & Stevens from the 1960's
- Secrets of the Emerson & Stevens Company - Part 2
- The Story of Lemuel Cotton & The Ebonoak Handle
Don’t miss the books, where you can learn more information on Maine’s famous axe makers:
- Axe Makers of Maine, Donald G. Yeaton and Art Gaffer (self-published)
- Oakland, Maine, Oakland Area Historical Society (Arcadia, Portsmouth, NH 2004)
- “Oakland, Maine Axes and Other Edge Tools,” The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, September 1981.
- Registry of Maine Toolmakers, H.G. Brack (Davistown Museum, ME 2010)
- "Oakland Axes," Memories of Maine, Summer, 2014
- History of Oakland, Maine. Michael J. Denis 2019