Country Life in Photos: Making an Axe Handle

Modern hand tool handles are made on an industrial scale, often in small factories by machines running for hours at a time.  This means they’re relatively inexpensive, readily available, and easily replaceable (because the toolmaking industry has created size standards).

But not long ago, when farm folks in particular had more time during the lay-by than cash, tool and handle-making were at-home crafts that required craft skills and patience.

In 1984, Dothan photographer Doug Snellgrove took five pictures of Howard Smith (Hodgesville, AL) demonstrating the steps of making an axe handle.

First, Smith chain-sawed 40-inch lengths of a hardwood log ca. 12 inches in diameter, then split the log twice.  After quartering the log, he selected the best of these “blanks” to shape into a new handle.

Smith then rough-shaped the blank with a hatchet.




Next, he clamped the roughed-out handle under the hold-fast of a shaving horse. He weights the hold-fast with his foot as he shapes the handle with a drawknife.  Although not shown here, he might have finished the handle with a spokeshave, then sanded and oiled it.  To fit the handle into the axe head, Smith whittled it then bonded the pieces together with glue.



Craft woodworking tools (as opposed to factory machinery for woodworking) have changed little since colonial days.  Drawknives and spokeshaves are all metal with replaceable blades, and axes no longer come from the blacksmith’s forge, but the shaving horse is still homemade and the basic work is still the same. (Eric Sloan, A Museum of American Tools [NY: Ballantine Books, 1964]).


According to Ben Ferguson of Florida, a woodworker who makes beautiful bread bowls among other things, a significant improvement has occurred in sanding technology.  Thankfully, according to Ferguson, sandpaper replaced using a rag and shattered glass that cut the worker’s hands.

For more photos of life and nature in the Wiregrass, visit the Doug Snellgrove Photograph Collection at


More than Meets the Eye: The Chiriaco Collection, RG 117

Contributed by Anna L. Humphries.

The Wiregrass Archives is home to many mysteries. The Americo C. Chiriaco collection is one, but using rhetorical analysis and literary history to consider the collection offers a new angle for determining a possible explanation.

Amerigo C. Chiriaco compiled a curious collection of lists that now live at The Wiregrass Archives. Chiriaco was born in 1930 and worked for the International Trade Commission. He travelled extensively for work and kept notebook journals of his travels. He eventually retired to Slocomb, AL where he lived until his death in 2003 which led to the procurement of his collection by the Wiregrass Archives in 2004.

Chiriaco notebook cover close-up. Box 1, file 31.

Chiriaco’s journals are interesting because of their seemingly bizarre contents. One might expect to find travel memorabilia and journal entries on personal experiences. Instead, he filled his spiral bound notebooks with meticulous hand-written rows and columns of plants, animals, restaurants, historical sites, sites of interests, and indigenous people along the routes he travelled.  Chiriaco organized the notebooks by region or country, and constructed his lists in alphabetical order. Along with the notebooks on locations of interest, there are reference notes on correlations with highway maps and tourist guides, some of which were also donated with the collection, others of which have been lost.

What was Chiriaco’s motive for compiling all of this information? These are not To Do lists or historical records. There is no obvious purpose for them, yet he spent years creating them. Although these lists seem to be an unsolvable mystery, the answer may lie in the history of literature.

Close-up of first page of Chiriaco notebook. Box 1, file 31.

Strange lists have been found dating back to the third century B.C. and form an ancient genre of literature called “paradoxography.” It has been found in Aristotle’s History of Animals, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, The Geography of Strabo, Herodotus’s Histories, and catalogues composed by Hesiod. Scholars consider paradoxography in ancient writing to be a preface to science as we know it. The lists of unbelievable animals and people found in new lands and of strange and inexpiable occurrences were modeled after an Aristotelian style of the study of biology. James S. Romm offers explains the purpose of list-making in his The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought. Romm writes:

The rhetorical strategy behind such catalogues can be analyzed at a number of levels. First the matter-of-fact tone of the catalogue helps balance the exoticism of the wonders themselves: The insistence on spare linguistic structures such as the simple assertion of existence, “there is,” creates a veneer of clinical, dispassionate inquiry. Furthermore, the frequent citation of sources which typifies this kind of writing also helps bolster authority- or at least it relieves the author himself, and thereby his audience, of responsibility for assessing the truth…The cataloguer of wonders typically crowds his data into linguistic aggregates rather than distinct units: prolix, hyperextended sentences, or rapid-fire series of clauses. The proliferation of data dislocates its readers and overwhelms their ability to separate true from false, in effect forcing them to “swallow” whole that which would seem incredible if presented piece meal (92-93).

While Chiriaco’s reasoning for compiling his journals is unknown, he shares much with ancient paradoxographers. His writing is related to his travels. He creates a sense of authority by listing detailed esoteric information from economic production to fungi taxonomy. His journals were mostly composed before the internet was widely accessible. Was he striving to create all-inclusive encyclopedias of the world, or was he an aspiring travel book author?  His collection requires more examination, and paradoxography might offer one key to unlocking its mystery.

Discover the Chiriaco Collection online finding aid at

The author, Anna L. Humphries, is a Troy University Dothan Campus graduate who is hard at work on her Master’s degree in English at University of Tennessee — Chattanooga.

The Dixie Depot Records, RG 145

Many Wiregrass Archives collections are rich resources for historical research.  This post features one of our favorites, The Dixie Depot Records, RG 145.

Dixie Depot in its later years. Doug Snellgrove Photographs, RG 99

In 1908, the Atlantic Coast Line / Seaboard Atlantic Line built its passenger and freight depot in Dothan, Alabama’s Dixie neighborhood a few blocks north of downtown.  During its heyday first as the ACL/SAL depot then as the Southern Railway (CSX) depot, this was the headquarters for the yards from Waycross, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama.  Copies of all contracts, compacts, and reports from other stations along the line ended up in the records collected at the Dixie Depot.

Most of those contracts are for rights of way and other small real estate transactions, but some are for private rental of sections of depot warehouses, like the 1943 contract for storage space in the Jakin, Georgia, depot, pictured here.  Almost all contracts come with a blueprint on legal-sized paper (blueprinting was one of the only ways to make multiple copies before the advent of photocopying).

Depot blueprints are particularly interesting because they show the racial segregation of waiting rooms:  “C.W.R.” in the upper left denotes that space is the “Colored Waiting Room,” and below it is the “W.W.R.,” the “White Waiting Room.”

Depot floor plan, Jakin, GA, 1943

In 2004, Dothan Landmarks Foundation (Landmark Park) prepared to return the abandoned depot (ca. 1985) back to the City of Dothan to become the HQ for the Wiregrass Transit Authority.  The Wiregrass Archives pulled over 30 cubic feet of records – along with the evidence of insect and rodent infestation as well as coal dust – then cleaned and organized the collection into 4 subgroups containing 18 series, with an artifact and miscellaneous series:

Dixie Depot in its later years. Doug Snellgrove Photographs, RG 99

Subgroup–Station Master 1926-1985 (Bulk 1954-1985); [350 Files]: The Station Master was the senior official in charge of the railroad station’s physical plant, office, and station employees. He was responsible for running the station safely and efficiently.  One series consists of labor agreements, 1964-1978, including contracts between the unions and the SCL.

Subgroup– Property Protection 1946-1984, [94 Files] Railroad police ensured the safety of both passengers and freight and investigated any accident, injury or theft that occurred on railroad property. This division was really the railroad police.

Dixie Depot, from the Snellgrove Photo Collection, RG 99

Subgroup– Train Master 1955-1985, [84 Files & 7 Items]: Train masters were responsible for the trains that passed through terminals under their control and ensured that trains arrived and departed safely. Trainmasters kept close contact with personnel. The most interesting series in this subgroup is the Conductors’ Reports, 1981-1985.

Subgroup– Road Master 1954-1985, [202 Total Files (142 Files & 60 Oversized Files]: Road masters were responsible for an assigned territory of track and saw that it was kept up to established standards. They were responsible for maintenance personnel in the assigned territory.This subgroup contains 72 files of contracts, 1908 – 1964, a rich source of information about the towns along the line and the business of the railroad itself.

This collection is open for research.  You can find an online finding aid for it here:

Wiregrass Archives staff members Tina Bernath and Diane Sowell created and displayed this poster about the Dixie Depot Collection at the Alabama Historical Association meeting in 2013 and the Society of Alabama Archivists meeting in 2015.

Dixie Depot _USE