Saturday, August 28, 2010

The "Kerrville" or "Grey Gorge" Axe

Years ago, I asked for an axe.  Here's what I wrote in my column in the Kerrville Daily Times, back in 1999:
"Do you have an old “Kerrville” or “Grey Gorge” axe in the tool shed that you’d take the time to bring by the shop so I could see it? I’ve read about them several times over the years, and I’d like to see one – an invention truly born of necessity, born right here in Kerr County, years ago in the 1920s. I know it sounds impossible, but the cedar (Ashe juniper) trees that line our hillsides may be relative newcomers to the county. I’ve seen old photographs that suggest these hills we all so readily recognize were once covered very differently, and that trees (of any kind) in Kerrville were few and far between."
I asked for an axe, and my long-time friend John M. Mosty gave me his.  It's now part of my collection of Kerrville and Kerr County items.
The late Bob Bennett, in his history of the County, tells the following story:
“In the early twenties ranchmen of the cedar section of Texas began to hire cedar choppers to clear out the excessive growth, most of the choppers being migrant laborers from Mexico. These choppers complained that the axe in use was too heavy, weighing from three to four pounds. The handle was too long and the axe blade too short. These defects must be cured to create a more perfect cedar axe. Many were studying the problem and the solution was bound to be found sooner or later.
“Henry Weiss of Kerrville was interested in producing a better axe for cedar cutting than had thusfar been on the market. In cooperation with Frank Krueger, Kerrville blacksmith, who had learned his trade in Germany, a far better implement was evolved.”
At this point in his story, Bennett refers to an article written by Gene Hollon for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume L, No. 2, October 1946:
“The Charles Schreiner Company in Kerrville sold hundreds of axes each year to the cedar choppers, ranchers and farmers. The manager of the hardware store at that time was Henry Weiss, who was conscious of the need for an axe better suited to the cedar country. But he only ‘sold axes. He didn’t make them.’
Enter Frank Krueger.
“Krueger’s years of experience as a blacksmith, together with his mechanical turn, common to many Germans, qualified him to take Weiss’s suggestions and improve upon them.
“Using the Weiss-Krueger axe as a model, a manufacturing company began the making of the cedar axe in commercial quantities . . . The cedar axe immediately began to sell in large quantities, and is widely used today (1946). It is useful not only as a cedar cutter, but for cutting and trimming other green timbers. It is made in single blade and double blade styles. Experienced woodsmen say that the specially designed axe is twenty-five per cent more effective for the purpose of cutting cedar than the old style chopping axe . . . The double bladed cedar axe outsells the single blade product, according to dealers . . . .”

A "Kerrville" or "Grey Gorge" Axe.  Gift from John M. Mosty
* * *
Back in the days before concern for the golden-cheeked warbler (dendroica chrysoparia), eradicating the cedar (really juniper) trees was a prime objective of ‘scientific’ range management. This warbler supposedly uses the sloughing bark of the juvenile cedar for its nest, binding the long strips of bark into a cup-like shape with spider webbing. So today saving stands of cedar trees is in vogue, because the warbler is endangered. Yet only a generation ago, ridding the hillsides of cedar was government policy. Not only did the cedar crowd rangeland for livestock, it also had the reputation for drawing too much water from the soil. Many old reports say that after clearing cedar from a field, nearby streams began to flow again; the government at one time paid landowners to clear cedar. The cedar seemed to come with the livestock, taking over quickly areas newly fenced to maintain herds. Bennett’s book suggests that before the cattle and ranchers came, the local Indian’s habit of burning the “grassy ranges” helped control the advance of the cedar; I’d bet that the cattle’s degradation of the variety of plants on an already fragile soil helped break an opening for the shrubby pest, and with its pattern of spreading by seeds, ranchers had a big problem on their hands. The “Kerrville Axe” was a high-tech tool to battle the menace, and it was invented right here.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who is interested in very obscure things.

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