OAKLAND — When Howard Hardy spies the word Oakland on a fading label of a timeworn ax, he doesn’t see an aging tool.
Hardy, 60, said he sees a symbol of the town’s history, when it was once the world capital of ax and scythe manufacturing.
A hundred years ago, as many as 18 factories lined Messalonksee Stream in the town, and, according to Hardy and other historians, the town manufactured more axes and scythes than anywhere else in the world.
One factory, at its peak, churned out more than 120,000 axes a year.
Technology improved, however, and chainsaws and tractors grew in popularity while axes and scythes faded out. The last Oakland ax manufacturer closed in 1967.
Hardy is trying to make sure that the town’s history is not forgotten.
Hardy, vice president of the Oakland Historical Society, said he tried to learn more about the tools but found limited information.
He said he started collecting locally made axes and scythes more than 20 years ago after he visited a friend who was chopping wood and told him that the ax he was using was made in town by a now-closed factory.
“When I found out what information was available, it made me want to research and find more myself,” he said.
Even 20 years ago, it was getting increasingly difficult to find residents who had worked in factories or knew people who did.
Now it’s hard to find people who knew the factories existed, he said.
His collection started out small, with just a few axes he bought periodically from eBay or spied at an antique store.
While he collected axes, he also continued to research the town’s tool-manufacturing history.
The two new hobbies, ax collecting and researching their history, started to feed each other and expand.
The more he learned about axes, the more he wanted to collect them.
The more he collected them, the more he wanted to learn everything about them.
Hardy estimates he now has more than 150 axes and scythes, sheepishly admitting he’s spent a few thousand dollars to amass his collection.
Eventually, Hardy said he hopes to donate his collection to the town historical society so it has the information for future generations.
Hardy, hunched over a table in his workshop in Hinckley, clad in workboots, jeans and a T-shirt, said the value of a tool comes from both the rarity of the model and from knowing the story of it.
Hardy’s workshop in Hinckley is in a former antique store he bought on Skowhegan Road.
Hardy said he plans to work on the shop and re-open it as his own antique store.
“Every day I could find a new tool, but is it worthy for my collection? Is it something that I don’t have? Is it something that tells a story?” he said.
Picking them up one at a time, Hardy knows the story behind each item in his collection.
“Now this, this is a ‘president’s ax,” he said, while reverently holding one ax from his collection. “I only know of about five in existence.”
The bottom half of the small ax’s handle unscrews and detaches to reveal a knife hidden inside the hollow top half of the handle.
He said the original ax of that model was made as a gift for President Theodore Roosevelt when he came through Oakland by train in the early 1900s.
He said he scans eBay for Oakland-made axes to bid on “every chance I can get.”
His love of locally made axes and scythes expanded to collecting other pieces of the manufacturing process, including ax labels with the name of factories and miniature tools that were smaller scale models of products and fit neatly into the suitcases of traveling Oakland salesmen.
He said the labels are hard to collect because they quickly wore off the ax handles, but the ones he finds show the history of the region through their manufacturing information.
As Oakland changed from Winslow to Waterville in 1872, to West Waterville in 1873 and finally to Oakland in 1883, the address on the ax labels changed, too, Hardy said, holding up dozens of labels preserved in a photo album.
As early as the 1790s, factories lined the stream and were the economic backbone of the town.
The most important factories for the town’s economy were the ones that produced axes, scythes and other edged tools, Hardy said.
The tools were first made around 1830, and by the late 1800s, Oakland was the ax and scythe capital of the United States, he said.
In the 1890s, the American Ax & Tool Co. was making as many as 145,000 scythes a year.
The North Wayne Tool Co., the last tool factory in Oakland, went out of business in 1967.
At its peak, it made 180,000 scythes and 120,000 axes per year, more than anywhere else in the world, he said.
Hardy said he still occasionally meets people who worked at an ax factory or who had a parent who did.
Oakland librarian Gene Roy said when Hardy talked at the Oakland Public Library two weeks ago, about 40 people came and reminisced about the town’s past long after the presentation was over.
“I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge,” Roy said.
He said Hardy answered questions for about two hours — twice as long as an average library speaker — and at the request of library patrons, the library plans to invite him to speak again.
Roy said many of the older residents in attendance remembered the factories or knew someone who had worked there.
Many of the attendees were older residents, but he also saw a man he estimated to be in his 20s with a tattoo on his arm of a label for a Spiller ax, a brand that had been made in Oakland.
“I’m sure he doesn’t actually remember when the factories were here, but he thought enough of it to have a label tattooed on his shoulder,” he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder can be reached at 861-9252, or at: