top of page

"Waiting on the Kelley Axe"

A curious advertisement for the Kelly Axe and Tool Company is occasionally noted online, and though its uniqueness is apparent, its history is even more unique and interesting. These prints show a gentleman holding a dulled axe, sitting on a tree that is blocking a wagon full of passengers, while the axe man is being consoled by an associate. The bordering text notes the image as being an advertisement for the “Kelly Axe and Tool Co.” of Charleston, West Virginia, and is often noted as having the “Kelly Quality” seal printed in the corner. Thomas Lamond, of fame, noted the print in his book on the Kelly Axe and Tool Works in 2012, labeling the artist as “W.C Price”. The title displayed on this advertisement: “Waiting for the Kelly Axe”

Samuel Woodson Price (1908)

The correct history and artist behind the painting that these prints were based on is far more interesting than one might think. To start with an understanding of this unique piece of art, it’s important to note that the images most often seen are from the “Kelly Axe and Tool Company” era, which was 1924 until 1930. The two most significant factors that define the company at this time were the combination of the previous companies the “Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company” and the “American Axe and Tool Company” along with the fact that William C. Kelly was no longer President, as he had ceded his spot to George T. Price.

Though at first glance Price seems a character with simple beginnings within the company, a salesman who worked his way up through the ranks, it may surprise some to find that his heritage was linked to the Kelly family, and the presence of this specific print was significant to him as well. George Thomas Price was born November 21st, 1870, to Samuel Woodson Price and Mary Frances Thompson (Price). His mother Mary was the older sister of Robert Coleman Thompson, Jr., who married Zerilda A. Kelly in 1872. Zerilda was the oldest sister of William C. Kelly, making Price the axe making Kelly’s extended nephew through the younger man’s mother.

Price’s father, Samuel Woodson Price, was the artist behind “Waiting for the Kelly Axe”. Samuel Woodson Price was born near Nicholasville, Kentucky in 1828. His artistic nature was apparent from a young age, and by the time he was 14, he was known locally and had set up a studio for painting portraits. He eventually attended the Kentucky Military Academy and moved to Louisville in 1851. While in Louisville, he met a local gal named Mary Frances Thompson and took her as his wife in 1853. By 1859, social unrest had gripped the United States, and Louisville was a hotspot for the growing separation of thought. Due to this, Price and his wife moved to the Lexington area, where he joined a State Guard unit called “The Old Guard” where he enlisted as a corporal. The war officially began on April 12, 1861, and though Kentucky was deemed “neutral”, many of the State Guard units joined the Confederacy. However, Price and his unit joined the Union Forces under 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment. Under the pressures of war, he quickly rose to Colonel, then Captain. On June 27th, 1864, during the Battle of Kennesaw, Price was ordered to take his men, capture, and hold Moulton and Dallas Road, which proved to be a key move toward the outcome of the battle. Despite being hugely outnumbered, and being wounded himself, his troops were able to hold the area. Due to his amazing success in the battle, he was later made Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteer Troops by President Andrew Johnson and confirmed by a vote of congress. After the war was over, Price moved back to Louisville to raise a family and became Postmaster of Lexington for a time. He once again opened his art studio, painting many prominent figures and rising to further fame. On November 21st, 1870, he and Mary welcomed a baby boy, their 6th child, who they named George Thomas. Price continued an illustrious career as an artist, but as he aged, his sight began to fail. By early 1880, he had lost all sight in one eye and was limited in sight in the other. However, as a commission from his brother-in-law Robert Coleman Thomas Jr in April of 1881, one of his last works would be the painting entitled “Waiting for the Kelley Axe”. Soon after, while in the midst of painting a portrait of Mrs. Emanuel Bamberger of Louisville, Samuel’s retina in his final eye would detach, leaving him completely blind. Losing his sight did not finalize his artistic nature however, and he would become an author through dictation, publishing a few books on local art history and artists.

Samuel Woodson Price Circa 1864

The specifics of Samuel Woodson Price’s life, as well as the time during which “Waiting for the Kelley Axe” was created, tell us quite a few things. The first, and possibly the most wonderous, is that the painting was completed by a master artist, one who has numerous portraits hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. It was also completed at a time in that artist’s life when he was almost blind, and would be completely so a few months later. The date of April 1881 also lets us know that the company that the painting was commissioned for pre-dated the “Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company”, which was officially incorporated in 1887. The company was named “W.C. Kelly and Company” at the time, and Robert Coleman Thompson, Jr, Samuel Price’s brother-in-law, was its Secretary and Treasurer. R.C. had been involved in the Kelly family since marrying Zerilda Kelly in 1872 and had invested in the family’s axe manufacturing concern upon its formation in 1875. Though not a line sold by the company at the time the painting was created, the “Champion” line of axes would start its life as the “RC Thompson Champion” during that same decade. Thompson’s role in the Kelly family company led to the commission of “Waiting for the Kelley Axe” and would likely be a “foot in the door” for his nephew, G. T. Price, later down the road.

"Caught Napping" by S.W. Price

A verification that the “W.C. Kelly and Company” was the original commissioner of Price’s work is a trademark for the image itself from 1881. Trademark image 8,684, registered September 27th, 1881, shows the picture in its original form, and gives a brief explanation of the company’s intended use for it. Per the trademark, the company primarily intended to use prints of the image as flyers in crates of axes. However, further expansion upon uses in the description noted the possibility of using it as a print on the back of stationery as well as axe labels.

The painting itself was similar in method and composition to Price’s “Caught Napping” and “Night Before the Battle of Chickamauga”, but is certainly a divergence from his normal portrait work. This is not surprising, as this may well have been one of his last painted scenes, and as noted before, it was created with the use of one eye only. Despite the slight differences of the painting from Price’s typical style, it is interesting to note that in the years after the creation of the initial work, a number of variants of the scene were created. The image commonly found with WC Kelly and Company text printed on it was more subtly Price’s style. With a faded mountain background and a washed over appearance, the scene is quite reminiscent of “Caught Napping”, and though minimized, the central character holding the axe could well have been modeled after Price’s painting of General George H. Thomas. The curvature of the road in both images is likewise similar, and is similar enough to see the perfection of the artist’s attempts at visual depth. The overall images in muted in black and white, but the detail is still complex and telling. Future colorized images, like those used by S.W. Price’s son George T. Price during his presidency over the Kelly Axe and Tool Company from 1924 until 1930, did have some distinct changes. Along with the company name text change, the images had the “Kelly Quality” logo added. The painting itself had a more muted tone, with changes to the trees and the mountainous background. The most obvious change is the removal of a character, a stylized servant, on the road.

“Waiting for the Kelley Axe” is an interesting advertisement piece with a great back story. The connection between the company and the artist lends to the charm of the work’s history, and the history itself lends to the overall complexity of the story of the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company.

29 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page