Ames Shovel Works and the Construction of America

Ames Shovel Works once supplied a massive need in the U.S.

Cleaning a shovel

Cleaning a shovel.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

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Farm Collector is usually filled with stories about early farm implements and tractors and the men who invented and manufactured them. Less attention is given to the mundane hand tools that once were the primary means of tillage and, in many cases, are still in use today. Take the humble shovel, with which I’d guess most readers are familiar and from which many have probably gotten blisters at some time or another.

No one knows who first had the idea to use the wide, flat shoulder blade of a large animal as a crude shovel. Later someone thought to whittle a wide, thin blade of wood and attach a wooden handle. Then an inventive soul tipped the wooden blade with bronze or iron and finally hammered the entire blade from the same metals.

During the 16th and 17th century, when the process for making blister steel had been perfected, European blacksmiths began to hand-forge all sorts of tools from that material, which was tougher than wrought iron, held an edge better and could be polished.

In about 1833 in Hancock, Vermont, John Deere was said to be making shovels and hoes that were polished, “like no others that could be bought [and that] scoured themselves of the soil by reason of their smooth, satiny surface.”

Illicit manufacturing of farm implements

For all of the nearly two and a half centuries that the United States of America has existed, one of the premier names found on shovels made here has been Ames. Prior to the American Revolution most good tools were imported from England. The British government tried to suppress manufacturing in the Colonies to prevent competition to their home island industries. As might be expected, colonial blacksmiths made tools in spite of the restrictions, obtaining iron and steel wherever they could.

According to company history, Bridgewater, Massachusetts blacksmith John Ames began to make iron-bladed shovels in about 1774, shortly before the Declaration of Independence was written. John died in 1805 and his 27-year-old son, Oliver, who lived in Easton, Massachusetts, inherited the blacksmith shop. He established Ames Shovel Works in Easton, where, according to one source, he became known as the “King of Spades.”

Heirs to the Ames shovel kingdom

Oliver Ames’ sons, Oakes and Oliver Jr., took over the business in 1844 and renamed it Oliver Ames & Sons. There was a vast demand for shovels during the years prior to the American Civil War. About the only way to move earth, after it had been loosened by a plow or a pick, was to have a man armed with a shovel lift and heave it to one side or into a cart or wagon to be hauled somewhere else.

With the building of the National Road (the first major improved highway in the U.S. built by the federal government), the B&O Railroad and the Erie Canal, along with hundreds of smaller such projects, the demand for quality hand shovels was tremendous. Large numbers of the hopeful forty-niners who headed to California after gold was found at Sutter’s Mill used Ames shovels and picks, as did their counterparts in Australia during that country’s gold “excitements” of the 1850s. At about that time, one source noted, “The Ames shovel was declared to be legal tender in every part of the Mississippi Valley.”

Then came the War Between the States. The Union Army needed shovels — lots of shovels. Trenches needed to be dug, camps and fortifications had to be built, and first sergeants had to discipline misbehaving soldiers by having them dig, and then fill back in, 6-by-6-foot holes. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln personally asked Oakes Ames to supply shovels for the army. In addition to shovels, Ames Shovel Works made swords, cannons and other items for the Union Army, becoming quite wealthy in the process.

During the early 1860s, the Ames brothers bought a plow and cultivator manufacturer in Worcester, Massachusetts, called Nourse, Mason & Co. and renamed it Ames Plow Co., but that’s a story for another day.

The Credit Mobilier scandal

Oakes Ames was a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts and early became involved in the huge transcontinental railroad project that began during the Civil War, with the Central Pacific building east from Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific west from Council Bluffs, Iowa. In his book, Nothing Like it in the World, Stephen E. Ambrose says there was only one steam shovel used along the entire line, meaning that men with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and horse-drawn plows and scrapers moved the majority of the dirt along the approximately 1,900-mile route.

Most of those picks and shovels were made by the Ames brothers, who were in addition making money from the Credit Mobilier, a construction company organized by the directors of the Union Pacific. This company made huge profits from the construction contracts and most of those profits went to the UP’s directors, among whom were Oakes Ames, president of Credit Mobilier, and his brother Oliver Jr., president of the Union Pacific.

When the Credit Mobilier scandal broke in 1872, the House of Representatives voted to censure Oakes Ames and he died shortly after, some say from shame. His brother Oliver Jr. seems to have retired at about that time and the family business continued under a new generation of Ames men.

From Ames Shovel Works to Ames True Temper

According to company lore, by the 1870s, Ames was making some 5,000 shovels per day – or 60 percent of the metal shovels being produced in the world. The elaborate trench systems of World War I increased demand for Ames shovels dramatically, while World War II saw Ames develop the folding entrenching tool familiar to most U.S. veterans of that war, as well as those of the Korean Conflict and Vietnam.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Ames family liquidated its holdings in the firm, which continued to prosper with sales of more than $100 million by the 1990s. In 1999, Ames bought True Temper, a company whose origins go back to 1808 when a blacksmith named Alexander Miller began making hoes, nails, axes and other tools in a shop in Wallingford, Vermont.

Ames True Temper is still in business in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, making a complete line of shovels, as well as many other hand gardening tools. FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.