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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Little Axe That Could

by Clay Coppedge

We might want to say that Charles Weiss had an axe to grind back in 1927 when he turned a broken and abandoned hatchet into a new kind of tool, one that changed the life of that fabled denizen of the Texas Hill Country known as the cedar chopper.

Cedar choppers proliferated in the Hill Country because there was - and is - a lot of cedar to chop. (Actually, we're talking about the Ashe juniper here, but the tree is called and probably will always be called "cedar" by the locals; we don't hear anybody complaining about "ashe juniper fever.") The chopping of said cedar was done, of course, with an axe. But not just any axe. The Kerrville axe was the axe of choice in that forbidding land because it was, quite literally, made for the Hill Country.

To understand why this particular axe made such a difference to people who chopped cedar we have to take a look at the more traditional axes, and by traditional we mean that the axe is one of the earliest tools used by humans. As useful for cutting down an enemy as a tree, axes are among the relics of the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. Most of the axes used in early-day America were heavy and crude and fashioned by local blacksmiths. They were heavy, weighing as much as seven pounds. The Kerrville axe weighs in at about two-and-a-half pounds, as we might expect from something inspired by a hatchet.

Henry Weiss, manager of the hardware department at the Charles Schreiner Company in Kerrville, the heart of cedar country, found a broken hatchet, sans handle, in 1927. He picked it up and took it home with him. Later, he took it to a blacksmith named Frank Krueger and asked him to fix it by turning it into a small axe.

Krueger said he didn't think a repair of the hatchet would last but he fixed the broken edge, attached a 30-inch handle, charged Weiss a dollar and sent him on his way. As Krueger predicted, the hatchet's days of utility were a thing of the past but the little axe lasted just long enough for Weiss to discover how handy it was for chopping those pesky cedar trees. Traditional axe handles were too long and the blade was too short for cedar chopping, which involves a lot of close-in work and overhead strokes. A miss can be disastrous.

Weiss really liked his little axe and he asked Krueger to make him another one, just like the other one. Krueger actually made a better one, tapering the inner edge to give the chopper a better chance of hitting the mark. Weiss was proud of his axe and he didn't mind showing it off to people. One of the people he showed it to was Lee Judd, a factory representative for the Hartwell Brothers of Memphis, Tennessee.

Judd wanted to take the axe back to Memphis with him as a prototype but Weiss would not part with his axe, not even for a little while. Instead, he drew pictures of the design and gave them to Judd but the axe that came from the drawings wasn't quite right.

Weiss again went to Krueger and asked him to make another one, just like the other ones. Krueger was less than enthused. Weiss appealed to the blacksmith's sense of civic pride by telling him the axe would be called the Kerrville Cedar Axe if the company agreed to produce it. Fame and fortune would come to town by way of the axe, if only he would make another one.

"Well," Krueger said, "since you are my friend, I will do it, but I want you to know that you are the only person in the world for whom I would spend so much time and hard work making another axe of this sort."

The Warren Axe and Tool Company of Pennsylvania ended up making the axes. Judd's company, Hartwell Brothers, produced the handles. The axe was an instant hit in the market place. Hunters and campers loved the new axe as much as the cedar choppers. Soon these axes could be found wherever fine axes were sold but they were sold as the Grey Gorge axe, not the Kerrville Cedar Axe as Weiss had been promised.

Today, the little axe that could goes by many names, but if you axe us, it will always be the Kerrville Axe.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" October 4, 2018 column
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    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18
  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18
  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18
  • Three-Legged Willie Stood Tall 8-4-18

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