It seems that my first memory of an axe is the sharp-as-a-razor Hudson’s bay, Snow & Nealley that my Dad kept behind the seat in his pickup truck. While still very young I was told, “I have a different one for you, and you are not to touch the one in the truck.” Little did I know that my father’s wisdom was one of many years, and one of much experience. When I finally got old enough to ask him why I couldn’t use his axe, he simply told me that it was too sharp to be safe in the hands of someone who was inexperienced. He also told me something that I had never thought of before. A slip with a very sharp knife, you have a clean cut or a clean puncture wound. A slip with a very sharp axe and you are missing a digit or a limb. Incrementally, one was certainly a bigger deal than the other.
He always made sure I had something to chop with of my own, but it was never very sharp. I had lots of fun with the axes he gave me. My next memory of an axe was made when I was a young teenager. We were cutting pulp and logs on the back forty and we were doing it the old way, old way from my time, that is. These days wood is felled with a feller- processor; one can virtually cut wood in an air conditioned cab wearing a suit and tie.
We were cutting the trees with the chain saw and limbing them with the axe. I had a two- pounder with a straight handle that Dad had honed himself. I had on a new pair of rubber boots, as it was May, still a muddy month this far north. I also had on a nice pair of wool stockings that my mother had just knit that spring and a pair of cotton socks under those. I was standing in a bit of a water hole and limbing a fir. I took a lunging swing on the back side of the tree, which my legs were leaning on, and …missed the limb. I had swung low and the axe nicked the top of my brand new rubber boot. There was a bit of a sting and then a little warm feeling.
I stopped, sat down, and pulled off the boot. So much for the wool sock, there was a large gash in the top of that. Off it came. The top of the cotton sock was diced and just a little blood was coming out of the top of my foot. I was distraught. My Dad saw me sitting down and came over. One was not allowed to rest on our particular pulping operation, thus I had drawn his attention.
He said, “So much fur yur new boots. How’s yur foot?” I showed him the blood. He said, “I’ll be a son-of-a-whore! It ain’t too bad, wunt even need a stitch.” Then in typical fashion, continued to tell me of the time he had been using a double bit axe and with the sharp side, had nearly diced off the last two toes on his right foot. Said… he had to hold them against one another until the old man took him to Doctor Hagarthy. He also said he had to get 20 stitches or they might have fallen off. His boot had filled right up with blood. I thought, likely story… Then, when we got home that evening he took off his boots and showed me the scar. My father was a teaser; one never knew when he was telling the truth.
The rubber boot was patched with a tire patch kit (black patch-green boot, goofiest thing I’d ever seen). The wool sock was darned by my mother, the bloody cotton sock was thrown away…and my foot, as was predicted, didn’t even need a stitch.
I now am co-curator of a local logging museum. My first job there was mowing the lawn. And of course there is a large collection of axes there of which I have always been captivated by. Cutting tools are just interesting if you come from a place that is all about trees. I have learned many things about this collection and learned many things from the people who were still around to talk about it, when I was still a teenager/lawn boy.
Very few people donated axes that were still in good condition. Many of the relics pictured here were brought back from the woods or riverbank, having been used and lost in the woods or on the drive. Some to chop, some to grub, some to split…some to hew, some for ice, some to mortise…who would guess that there are so many uses for an axe.
I have studied this collection my whole life and have collected many axes of my own. Like knives, it seems a different one is needed for every purpose I create. And then, like any collection, I could never really use all of the 10 or 15 axes I have. They are fun to talk about. Each one has a history. I have a few small ones that fit well in my pack basket. I have an old dull hewing axe that works great for splitting firewood. It seems like duller is better for splitting. I have some very cheeky small ones that seem very good for splitting kindling, nice and light… I’m not sure how much money I’ve spent. I’m sure it was too much for what I actually obtained, but who knows?
Bernard Ten Bears