PORTAGE, Maine — Every object passing through a person’s hands has a story to tell.
Sometimes those stories are centuries in the making and take years to tell themselves. Just ask Jim Dumond and Antoine Gagnon of Portage whose story of trade between two nations and two hand-forged axes dates back to the mid-1600s.
The axes initially were discovered in the 1950s on a piece of land known locally as Indian Point on the banks of Portage Lake.
“My grandfather Fred Cliff was clearing some land in between two camps, and the fellow he hired to pull stumps turned over some dirt and there were these old iron axes,” Fred Edgecombe of Kure Beach, N.C., said during a phone interview Saturday.
Now retired, Edgecombe owns one of those camps and has one of the axes.
“In the late 1970s my cousin got the larger of the two axes and I got the smaller one, and we’ve been sitting on them ever since,” Edgecombe said. “Nobody had much of an interest in them and all of sudden, it’s like, ‘Wow, people are interested.’”
In fact, Dumond and Gagnon are very interested in the axes and what they represent.
Last summer the two men got a good look at the old tools and, thanks to some intensive research on the Internet, were able to match the symbols on the blades, indicating they had been crafted from iron ore mined in Spain around 1640.
“These trade axes are just awesome,” Gagnon said. “They looked like a metal hatchet, [and] on the sides were stamped a cross within a circle.”
According to Dumond and Gagnon, the trade axes — so called because French and British trappers and colonists traded them for furs with the area’s Native American residents — probably found their way to northern Maine thanks to the Acadians who came to Maine around that time.
Both men say they have Acadian and Native roots in their family genealogies and are fascinated by what the blades represent.
“They were found near what we have always called Indian Point,” Gagnon said. “This little peninsula juts out probably 50 to 100 feet and can’t be more than 20 to 25 feet wide.”
Dumond said the point’s topography and location made it an ideal summer home for the area’s Native American population.
“There is a kind of flat plateau there and there’s always a breeze so they could have a view up and down the lake to see who was coming and that breeze would keep the mosquitoes away,” Dumond said. “Plus, the natural current runs from the headwaters of the lake down to where it feeds into the Fish River, and that was important for transportation.”
In addition to the trade axes, Dumond and Gagnon said arrowheads and a pestle-type tool have been found on Indian Point.
“That must have been a really good place to trade with the Indians,” Gagnon said.
For Edgecombe, the axes represent more than trade; they signal a technical revolution for the tribes of northern Maine.
“It’s really fantastic when you think about it,” he said. “The thing about the native people who lived there before the white man was they had to do all the work, like cutting trees, with stone tools, and when the French came in to trade and brought iron axes it was like a 10-century advance for them.”
Gagnon, who serves as council historian for the local Wesget Sipu group, said the axes represent a tangible link between his Native forefathers and the early French Acadians.
“These blades could prove the Acadians were here earlier than anyone thought,” he said, “and that they moved up the Fish River watershed from the St. John Valley.”
Dumond and Gagnon hope to use that bit of information to convince organizers of the 2014 World Acadian Congress to include Portage in the international event.
Rick Somerville of Carmel, Edgecombe’s cousin, has the larger of the two blades and is equally captivated by the story and remembers being there the day the axes were uncovered.
“I remember my grandfather wanted to put in another garden and hired a man to clear the land,” Somerville said. “They were pulling stumps and there were the blades [and] my grandfather sharpened one of them to see if could still take an edge — and it did.”
In addition to the markings on the blades, Gagnon said their condition indicates the age of the tools.
“They are pitted and worn and were clearly hand-forged,” he said. “A lot of trade axes found in the woods are frauds, but you can tell these are the real things.”
That the axes were found just below the surface of the land on Indian Point makes Dumond and Gagnon wonder what else is lurking underground.
“Proof of the trade that went on between the Acadians and Indians is right under our noses,” Dumond said. “It makes perfect sense since Portage [Lake] is part of the Fish River chain, and they would have used that for transportation.”
To pay tribute to that transportation network, last year Dumond organized a re-enactment of the traditional land portage of canoes between Little Machias Lake and Portage Lake.
He and Gagnon hope to combine events such as that with objects such as the trade axes and highlight the town’s history.
“I would like to see people get a look at these axes,” Somerville said.
His cousin agrees.
“I would like to think something special could be done with them,” Edgecombe said. “I know other people in Portage Lake have found artifacts, and it would be nice to pull them all together and put them somewhere.”