October 18, 2018
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‘It’s not a hipster ax’: Maine company reviving state’s ax-making tradition

Stephen Ferguson wanted to buy his godson a Maine-made ax before he headed off to forestry school. That turned out to be impossible without a time machine. Maine, once the ax-manufacturing capital of New England, probably forged its last homegrown tree cleaver in 1965.

Ferguson settled for a Swedish-made ax instead, but the frustration stuck with him.

“It’s kind of crazy that there’s no ax-makers in Maine,” he thought, especially given the Pine Tree State’s rich history of logging and lumbering.

Ferguson is set to change that in May when he unveils the Allagash Cruiser, the first completely Maine-made ax in more than 50 years.

He’s not doing it alone. In 2015, Ferguson, a school counselor by day, started an ax refurbishing business, Brant & Cochran, with his brother, Mark, an attorney, and nurse Barry Worthing. They got going in a bit of rented space at the Open Bench Project on Portland’s Thompson’s Point.

The business name comes from the a tool company once owned by the Ferguson brothers’ grandfather.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A new Allagash Cruiser ax sits finished on a bench at the Brant & Cochrane workshop in South Portland.

While the partners learned to sharpen, polish and revive old axes, they also soaked in all the ax lore they could find. With help from the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum and the Oakland Historical Society, they studied the various lengths, weights and uses. They learned to distinguish the multitude of head patterns, too, like the humbolt, the Michigan, the Hoosier and, of course, the Maine wedge.

“But we always had plans for forging,” Ferguson said, sitting in the company’s new South Portland digs.

To help with that goal, they recruited machinists Gabriel McNeill and Nicholas Dowling to design and carry out the manufacturing process. Currently, it’s a small-scale operation, taking more than two hours to forge a single ax head. Those two hours don’t count fitting and shaping the handle, which adds even more time. Slow or not, when their Allagash Cruiser hits the street this spring, they’ll be carrying on an already storied Maine tradition.

The old days

Oakland, Maine, used to be the epicenter of New England’s ax and scythe industry. It started before the Civil War and only ended when the chainsaw fully replaced the ax in commercial logging. At the turn of the 20th century, the town of 2,000 souls boasted a dozen edged tool manufacturers.

“The town of Oakland — or West Waterville, as it was known before — had, at one point, a dozen ax companies on the Messalonskee,” said Worthing. “You can imagine them, side-by-each, across the river from each other, making axes over and over.”

Courtesy Brant & Cochran | BDN
Courtesy Brant & Cochran | BDN
The Dunn Edge Tool Company was one of a dozen such makers in Oakland.

The stream provided free power for the manufacturing companies and Waterville had a railroad connection for distribution to the rest of the world. According to Oakland’s town website, the Dunn Edge Tool Company alone once produced 180,000 scythes and 120,000 axes in one year.

The Snow & Nealley tool company of Bangor and Brewer assembled axes into the early 2000s but it’s unclear if any of the forging was done in-state.

In 1964, a few months before the Emerson & Stevens company of Oakland made its last ax, a former Colby College student, Peter Vogt, made a 10-minute film about the process.

Vogt was making films for the U.S. Air Force at the time. As part of his training, his superiors gave him free reign and a supply of expired film. That’s when he headed back to Maine to document the three remaining ax-making men, before it was too late.

The film can now be seen for free on Youtube and currently has almost 200,000 views.

The new days

Brant & Cochran’s new ax, the Allagash Cruiser, is based on a historic design.

“We’re bringing back the Maine wedge,” Ferguson said, “which, currently, nobody is making.”

It’s meant to be a businesslike, functional tool with no fancy embellishments. The head is a simple wedge design with the forging marks left in place on the non-business end.

The “cruiser” moniker refers to the size of the ax. It’s what an old-time timber cruiser would have used while walking through the woods, marking trees to be cut, limbing branches and making boundary marks. It’s not for felling or chopping.

“Because you wouldn’t want to walk around with a four-pound ax all day long,” said Worthing. “And ‘Allagash’ is just an ode to the region.”

Courtesy Brant & Cochran | BDN
Courtesy Brant & Cochran | BDN
Brant & Cochran designed their new Allagash Cruiser logo to fit in with old, historical ax labels from Maine's past.

The cruisers aren’t cheap. They’re being made one at a time, for now. When released in May, they’ll fetch $250 each, but should last a lifetime. The ash handles are also made in Maine, as is the leather sheath that will accompany each one. The ax will also come in a fancy box with beer coasters, postcards, a magnet, a product registration card and a Brant & Cochran poster explaining the history, anatomy and care of the ax.

The add-ons may give the illusion that the Allagash Cruiser is just a fashion accessory for so-called “lumbersexuals.” Not so, said Worthing.

“It’s a real ax,” he said. “The purpose of this is to be used. It’s not a hipster ax. It’s a quality hand tool.”

In fact, they’ve had professional foresters and arborists testing cruiser prototypes since last year. They’re confident their tools will do justice to those Maine-made axes that have come before.

In a nod to the old Oakland makers, Brant & Cochran has adopted the old tradition of stamping the year of manufacture on every head, along with the initial of its maker. In this case, that’s their temperer, McNeill.

Presales for the first 25 Allagash Cruisers will commence on their website next month. After that, they hope to have 25 more available in June.

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Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Brant & Cochran partner Barry Worthing checks a new ax for sharpness by shaving his arm hair at the company's workshop in South Portland.

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