18 March 2018

The Last Axemakers,
And Old School Memories

Oakland, Maine once had several axe-making factories. Axes made in the Oakland factories were world famous. 

The film above shows Emery-Stevens axes being made in 1965. Emery-Stevens was the last axe maker in Oakland, and that film was made shortly before they shut down.

The film was made by a man who realized he was capturing a piece of history that was about to be lost. It is a gift from the past for those of us who appreciate this sort of thing.


Speaking of axes, back in 1976-77, when I attended the Grassroots Project in Vermont, one of the things I was required to bring with me when I started the school year was an axe. All students brought their own axes.

Wool pants, felt-lined Sorel boots, and wool mittens with a leather outer mitten were also required equipment.

We also brought knives, of course, and some guys brought hunting rifles. I had a Folding Hunter Buck knife. They were popular back then. We carried them in a sheath on our hips. I remember we boys fancied ourselves to be Rugged Old Woodsmen, even though we were only 18 years old.

Half way through the school year, my cousin, Peter, gave me a Smith & Wesson folding knife, with leather sheath. I switched out the Buck knife and carried the S&W. That knife was the most beautiful folding knife I've ever known. I say "was" because I sold it a couple weeks ago. Here's a picture...

Why sell a knife I once loved? Because I hadn't used it in years, it had value as a collectible, my income is significantly less in the winter months, and I carry a Leatherman Wave these days. The Leatherman is a far more useful tool.


If we all had phones with cameras and the internet back in 1977, there would be no shortage of pictures and videos to show from that era. But we didn't, and I'm glad we didn't. We didn't even have television to watch. Imagine that!

But a few kids had cameras and the school had a darkroom for the "camera kids." So, I have one single photo of myself (taken by I-don't-know-who) from that wonderful school year in Northern Vermont...

I'm crossing over a wet swampy area on top of a rope that is tied to a tree on each side. The rope was part of a "Bounder" course that we went through in teams. 

The kid before me tried crossing by hanging from his hands. He got halfway and was too tired to go any further. He had no option but to let go and land in the water. We all laughed, and wondered how we could possibly get over any better than he did.

Our teacher then suggested that it would be better to cross on top of the rope. That didn't make any sense, but he explained how it could be done, and I volunteered to try it.

It was downright easy to do, and a lot of fun. Several kids followed my example. A few of the girls couldn't do it. But some of them did. This next picture shows my classmate, Sueanne, getting across the swamp...

That picture of Sueanne shows the technique for crossing a rope, on top. I'm 60 years old now, but I feel confident that I could still do that.  

Now here's something really amazing.... I didn't know Sueanne very well back in '77,  but I remembered that she was from Block Island. A couple years ago I asked Everett Littlefield, a reader of this blog who is from there, if he knew Sueanne. Turns out he does, and she still lives on the island.



  1. Never mind the loss of quality tools. Mass production also robbed this country of the ability for a man (person) to use acquired skills to make a living, without traveling several towns away.

  2. The most telling comment to me was where it was said that one of the men made $1.25 an hour (yes, I get it was 1965) and he could make twice that in Connecticut pushing a broom. All those years of trade and knowledge dead ended.

    For example, different patterns of axe? And the fact that no measuring device was used, only craftsmanship and strength? We have lost so much knowledge.

    (P.S. Herrick, very glad you are posting regularly again. I am old school in that the written word works better for me. Although I do miss "Dateline: ")

    1. It's a sad reality, and it is still happening.

      My rural township has a husband and wife who have a machine shop by their home. Both of them work together and use the old machinery. No computerized equipment. There isn't much they can't make, or fix by making a new part. They are the modern equivalent of the village blacksmith. They are always busy, and a real asset to local farmers, not to mention me with my business. But they are both getting up to retirement age. There is no one with their skills. It will be a great loss when they close shop.

  3. Hi Herrick, Just finished reading the post and first thing in the morning I am going to take my 'peter and myself up to Sueanne's house and show her this. I know she will get a huge kick out of it! OBTW, I have one of those axes in a storage cabinet along with 10-12 others of all kinds and makes. It used to belong to my Grandfather, Henry C. Littlefield. No telling how old it is and if he or HIS father bought it! I just love old tools., Best Everett

    1. Everett,
      Give my regards to Sueanne.
      I don't think there were more than 60 or 70 students in the school that year, and it's kind of amazing that I remembered she was from Block Island.

  4. Mr. Herrick, Great to see that you are blogging again! I actually just started back myself. Thanks for all your wonderful posts.

    Speaking of wool pants. I purchased my first pair this last fall and have been amazed! Love them.

    I think of you often as I use my whizbang wheel hoe weekly if not daily!

    1. Hi Noah,

      I'm glad to see that you are back blogging too.

      I still have my wool pants from 40 years ago. But they don't fit me anymore. :-(

      You are one of only three people I know of who have actually wore out a wheel hoe blade, and ordered a replacement from me. S0, I know you must put a lot of miles on it!

      Thanks for the comment.

  5. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts, Herrick. Glad you are posting on here again. Thank you for doing so.

  6. Elizabeth L. Johnson said, James and I got firewood yesterday with the help of the skidloader, in time for rain this evening. Today I took a respite from tax paperwork thinking I could find a video from the Deliberate Agrarian to watch, with a cup of coffee in hand. And there was a video from Herrick. I enjoyed it very much. Taxes are all but done, and this afternoon I will finish putting in strawberry plants and do household chores, as well. Thanks very much for the trip to long ago; nostalgia is wonderful!!!

  7. I like that rope crossing technique, never heard of it. Wallenda could have used that technique when he crossed the Grand Canyon, but then it wouldn't have been as dramatic...

  8. Herrick, have you heard of the young men from Lativa, John Neeman Tols (now Northemn guild)? You will like this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paCyA9ypEOE