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Texas Trails-Sept. 2022

published: September 16th 2022
by: Clay Coppedge
source: Southern Livestock Standard

The little axe that could

Hardware salesman Henry Weiss was returning to Kerrville from a business trip in the country in 1927 when he spied a hatchet, minus its handle, abandoned by the side of the road. Weiss stopped his horse and got out to look at the blade and saw that part of it had been broken off. Weiss was a hardware man after all and so he kept it, thinking he might be able to put it to use.

That decision and what happened afterwards turned into a new kind of tool that changed the life of that fabled denizen of the Texas Hill Country known as the cedar chopper. Cedar choppers populated the Hill Country because there was – and still is – a lot of cedar (actually Ashe juniper) to chop there. Clearing these trees was different than clearing hardwood forests. Most of the axes used in early days generally weighed three or four pounds, though seven-pound axes were not uncommon on the expanding frontier. The Hill Country needed a smaller axe.

Weiss was manager of the hardware department at the Charles Schreiner Company in Kerrville, in the heart of cedar country. He took the broken hatchet blade to Kerrville blacksmith Frank Krueger and asked if he could do something with it.

Krueger was skeptical but he fixed the broken edge, attached a 30-inch handle, and charged Weiss a dollar. Just as Krueger suspected, the hatchet/axe blade did not last very long but it lasted long enough for Weiss to discover how handy it was for chopping cedar. Weiss told Hollon the story of the Kerrville Axe in 1944 and Hollon wrote about it in a 1946 edition of Southwest Historical Quarterly.

 “A common complaint among the cedar-choppers was that the three-to-four-pound axe they had to use was entirely too heavy and unsuited for close-in work that was sometimes necessary to fell a cedar tree,” Hollon wrote. “The handle was too long and the blade of the axe was too short; as much of the cutting had to be done by overhead strokes; a miss could be disastrous.”

Weiss asked Krueger to make him another one, just like the other one, and the blacksmith improved it, tapering the inner edge to give the chopper a better chance of hitting what he was aiming at. Weiss liked his little axe and showed it off to people, including 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 it, not even for a little while. Instead, he drew pictures of the design and gave those to Judd but it didn’t work out. Weiss and Judd went to Krueger once again and Weiss asked him to make one more little cedar axe. Krueger apparently had already made all the little axes he cared to make; he stubbornly refused to make another one.

Weiss played on Krueger’s civic pride and ambition by telling him that if the company ended up producing the axe it would be called the Kerrville Cedar Axe. Fame and added fortune would come to town by way of the axe, but only if he would make just one more to be used as a prototype.

“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. Hartwell Brothers produced the handles. The little axe that could was an instant hit in the marketplace and continues to be a popular model, but it did not make Weiss or Krueger rich and it did not make Kerrville famous. Neither Weiss nor Krueger patented the axe design and so they ended up having no say in the matter when company officials named it the Grey Gorge Cedar Axe.

Today, similar axes are sold under many names. But if you axe most people in the Hill Country, it’s still the Kerrville Axe.

 

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