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The Shovel As History

July 2024
1min read

The troops digging in on the heights above Boston Harbor in 1775 used shovels manufactured by a neighbor named John Ames in nearby North Easton. A hundred and seventy years and many wars later the Ames Shovel and Tool Works sent upward of eleven million entrenching shovels to Allied troops in the Second World War. Today the Ames company, now in Parkersburg, West Virginia, is still prospering. With a two-hundred-year history behind it Ames is America’s oldest hardware manufacturing company still producing its original product.

The Ames company ceased its operations in the North in the mid-1950’s, and two years ago Arnold Tofias, a Massachusetts real-estate developer, bought the old Easton shovel works. Along with the property there came an enormous trove of old records and memorabilia dating back to the origins of the company. Tofias was so impressed by the scope of these archives that he donated them to Stonehill College in Easton. During last summer members of the history department there cleaned and began to sort the great amount of material, which will eventually be catalogued and arranged for scholarly research. What is emerging is the unique record of a business that grew step by step with the country—payroll data, bills, accounts receivable, material on work hours, and so forth.

The shovel, simple tool though it is, has played a major part in the development of America. John Ames started out in 1774 and continued producing his iron shovel until his son Oliver took over the business in 1803. Thirty-three years later Oliver Ames & Son employed sixty men in three factories, turning out nearly five hundred shovels a day. Ames shovels dug trenches in the Mexican War and the Civil War, moved dirt for the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, and, in the widening scope of twentieth-century conflicts, saw service in the Argonne, at Bastogne, and at Iwo Jima. The two centuries of records, with their implications of great events and changes in American business practices, represent a most unusual historical find and one that we are pleased is being preserved.

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