Historic ax collection featured at museum

A Merrill couple’s antique ax collection is the subject of an ongoing exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau. “Ax Lore: Historic Tools from the John and Brenda Henson Collection,” is on view through Aug. 28 at the museum.

The Henson’s obsession with axes started innocently enough back in 1972 after they bought an old farm west of Merrill. The construction of the original dairy barn, with its ax-hewn timbers, fascinated John.

“That got me interested in what tools were used for barn building,” he said. “And that ultimately turned into collecting axes.”

John started his collection with American broadaxes, which were plentiful at auctions and could be purchased for relatively little money.

“The problem with American broadaxes,” John explains, “is that they were mass-produced, so they all looked the same. There’s only so far you can go as a collector.”

After the Hensons joined two international collectors associations, they made connections into the European market, where much older hand-forged axes could be found. The advent of the internet and eBay suddenly made the world a much smaller place for collectors of rare items such as those they were seeking.

“I was fascinated that these things were even available,” John said.

The Hensons started collecting axes forged by the hands of talented European blacksmiths who lived hundreds of years ago. Many of the finest axes of this age came from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. The Corinthian Mountains in Austria, with its high-quality iron ore and skilled blacksmiths, produced some of the axes most prized by collectors today.

“Ninety-nine percent of what we have is all hand forged, no two are alike,” John said.

John and his wife, Brenda – who has willingly joined him in his ax collecting hobby – have possessed as many as 650 antique axes at one time. Over the years, John figures nearly 1,200 axes have passed through their hands. They currently have axes designed specifically for a variety of building trades, axes used in battle, and axes used for execution.

John said he was drawn to axes by their sheer simplicity and historical significance.

“The ax is very rudimentary, but it was an absolute must for survival. You could make just about anything with an ax,” he said.

The Henson collection includes axes used to make ships, wine, barrels, shoes and carriages, among many other products.

Most of the axes in the Henson collection have engravings on the blades. Some bear symbols to protect the owner from evil and misfortune. Many bear the initials of the blacksmiths, whose names and locales have long been lost to the ages. The oldest is a recently-acquired Viking sash ax (a personal defense weapon) estimated to be 1,200 years old.

The earliest dated ax in the collection is a German battle ax with the year 1602 engraved into the blade. That ax is part of the Woodson Museum exhibit, along with some other amazing pieces including a French executioner’s axe, ca. 1700, with the image of Lucifer inlayed in gold on the blade. Another French beheading axe in the exhibit is similar to one featured in the Tower of London collection.

Also featured from the Henson collection is a trio of anvils used by blacksmiths hundreds of years ago. The heaviest weighs over 300 pounds. Among them is a 260-pound German armorer’s anvil, ca. 1728, used to shape the metal parts for knights’ armor.

The exhibit at the Woodson Art Museum has been in the works for two years. About 40 pieces from the top tier of the Henson’s collection were ultimately chosen for display.

“We are truly honored to exhibit our collection at Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum,” John said, adding that he enjoys sharing the history his collection represents.

“I feel like a custodian of these tools,” he said. “It is truly an honor to possess so many artifacts.”

Not content to just look at the items in their collection, John and Brenda built a log cabin with a broad axe in the 1990s. It took three years to hew all the logs for the 20×20-foot cabin. The axe used to hew those timbers is part of the Woodson exhibit, along with the axe owned by Marathon County craftsman Herb Beyer, who taught them how to do it.

The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is located at Franklin and 12th streets in Wausau. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon-5 p.m. Admission is always free.

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