Pearl Johnson: Jamestown’s First Tool Maker

Most people in Jamestown know of the Crescent wrench and the Jamestown company that produced the Crescent wrench and many other tools for most of the 20th century.

Crescent Tool Company began in 1907, but it was far from the first tool maker in Jamestown. During the early settlement of Jamestown, edge tools, such as axes, were important. Early axes were manufactured near the head of the lake by Barnes and in Dexterville (East Jamestown) by Edmund Edgerton and Lyman Crane. Jeffords was also a later manufacturer of axes in Dexterville, near the area later occupied by Dahlstrom’s.

The first tool maker in Jamestown was Pearl Johnson. He had earlier lived in Busti but moved into Jamestown about 1826 and began manufacturing edged tools of all kinds. An ad in the June 21, 1826, issue of the Jamestown Journal reads: “WANTED A smart active lad from 14 to 16 years of age, as an Apprentice to the axe-making business, which the Subscriber will commence in this place by the first of August next. None but a stout, able-bodied young man will be received. Pearl Johnson.”

Another ad in the Sept. 27, 1826, issue of the Jamestown Journal reads: “P. JOHNSON, WOULD inform the public, that he has commenced business at his new stand, on Fourth Street between Main and Pine Streets, where he intends to keep constantly on hand, and make on the shortest notice, all kinds of EDGE TOOLS.”

Johnson made all kinds of edge tools-butcher knives, chopping knives, axes, carving knives and draw knives in many sizes and shapes. It was his shingle shave (draw knife) that he produced in the greatest quantity and was prized by anyone making shingles.

According to A. W. Anderson’s Conquest of Chautauqua, “No shingle weaver would long be without one of Pearl Johnson’s shaves if he could procure one.”

Johnson advertised that his shaves were the “best in the world produced.” “All those who want shaves of a ‘superior article’ will take care that P.J. is stamped on them, as no others are of my make.”

Shingles were made in great quantity in this region during the early years of settlement as many homes were built. Shingles also were loaded on the lumber rafts or other boats that went south on the river system selling the products.

Because there was an abundance of lumber in this area, shingles were just one of the products that could be “easily” made and sold. Shingles were split from a length of a log but had to be “dressed” before use. The surface was smoothed by using a draw knife and the needed taper was perfected while smoothing the surface.

Draw knives were, and still are, made in a variety of sizes and shapes depending on the intended use. Shingle shaves needed to be the size of the desired width of the shingle. A “shave horse” was used by the shingle maker. This bench allowed the user to sit while working. One advantage of sitting on the shave horse was the shingle maker could use his legs for added leverage while drawing the knife toward him.

A clamp held the shingle to be smoothed and the user would set the draw knife on the wood and draw the knife toward him. Using the handles of the knife to adjust the angle of the blade, wood could be shaved off the slab of wood making it smooth while adjusting the taper of the finished shingle. One half would be done and then the wood would be turned around, reclamped and the other half finished. Even the shavings had a use. They could be used in basket making if the shavings were long enough or they were used as kindling when starting a fire.

The provenance, or history, of the pictured shingle shave by Pearl Johnson is that it was used on the Thayer farm on the Frewsburg-Kennedy Road. Pearl Johnson had his residence at the southwest corner of Fourth and Pine streets, and his shop was a long, one-story building that extended from the residence toward Main Street. How long he continued to manufacture edge tools is not known at this time but he died at the age of 51 in 1857 and is buried in Lake View Cemetery.

The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

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