Chiselville: A village in Sunderland


Jim Hayden

Special to The Journal

SUNDERLAND >> In the Town of Sunderland, on its southwest boundary with Arlington at the confluence of the Roaring Branch River and Warm Brook there is nestled a small village locally named Chiselville. The name derives from a Chiselworks that operated there in the mid 1800's.

A dam at the mouth of the gorge beneath the present covered bridge supplied water power to various business interests beginning in the early 1800s. Most notable among these enterprises was the Pratt and Skinner Tannery that supplied rawhide and harness to the early area settlers. But by mid-century the tannery had fallen on hard times and was put up for sale.

In 1853 it was purchased by a group of investors from Bennington led by Royal Irish and Paul Shuffleton. These men were early examples of venture capitalists who thought their idea for a steel fabricating site was worth pitching to investors who in turn hoped to make a profit by its early success. And so began the construction of a business originally envisioned as a steelworks for the manufacture of carpenter's squares.

And although the waterworks, including a 25-foot high dam and a water wheel 14-foot high and 12-feet wide, was constructed to power the heavy steel pounding hammers, the early investors decided to take their profits only two years into the project by selling their interests to N. R. Douglass and the Bottom Brothers of Shaftsbury. Douglass was running a Squareworks in Shaftsbury at the time. Apparently feeling awash in squares from his Shaftsbury operation, he decided to diversify into the edge tool business at the Sunderland site and so began the manufacture of high quality chisels in what was to become known as Chiselville.

In addition to two large shop buildings, one for forging and shaping and the other for grinding and polishing, he added a second dam and built houses of managers and foremen in the locale just downstream of the gorge. But Douglass too, decided after just four bustling years to take his profits and sold his interests to Oakes Ames, a prominent industrialist from Boston who controlled a large share of the tool making industry in New England. Ames employed workers who generally lived on subsistence farms within walking distance of the Chiselshops.

He put his nephew Frederick Ames in charge of the works but kept Douglass on as superintendent. The advent of the Civil War brought with it a period of prosperity and by 1870, the workforce had reached its zenith of 50 employees. The forging and tempering of the chisels were done by master craftsmen like George Cary, whose maker's mark is prized by wood carvers and tool collectors even today. The Douglass Chisels were regarded as some of the best ever made and continued to carry the Douglass stamp until 1878 when Ames moved most of his edge tool manufacturing works to Seymour, Conn. The remnants of the chiselshops were sold to Paul Shuffleton, an original founder, and Dewey Phillips a local entrepreneur who changed the name of the business to the Arlington Edge Tool (AET) Company.

Shuffleton ran his high quality edge tool business until 1886, when an untimely accident took his life as he slipped and fell from a footbridge crossing the Warm Brook on an icy January day. The business quickly dissolved with the remaining assets of the AET Company falling to the Phillips family. The parcels were subdivided and sold off one by one including all dwellings and shops with the final property, the Frederick Ames office and house, passing from the Phillips estate in 1954. A sad ending, yes, but many of the tools still survive, a testament to their quality.

Just ask Ted Hopkins, long-time carpenter, story teller and famed tool collector from Manchester Center. If you see him in town, ask him about the Douglass and AET edge tools. But don't be in a hurry because Ted knows tools and Douglass and AET edge tools are some of his favorites.


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