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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reasons To Take Up Knife Collecting

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, July 26, 2008.)

What is the attraction of knives?
We use knives to separate things -- but at
the W. R. Case Company, knives bring people together.

No tool is simpler than a knife, and no tool has a richer history. I walked into knife history on the grounds of the W. R. Case Company last weekend.

I attended the Case Collector Appreciation Weekend at the company’s factory in Bradford, PA, where hundreds and hundreds of knife enthusiasts from everywhere gathered under a big tent, won lots of prizes (pocket knives, of course) and talked endlessly about the simple tool that has been around since the first tool was invented.

The Case company began in 1889, one of dozens of knife manufacturers in this part of the country. It spawned a bunch more, but today it’s one of the few survivors. And it’s more vital than ever as it pushes its reign over knife-dom to the ripe old age of 120 years.

What is the attraction of knives? We use knives to separate things -- the hide from a deer, its innards from its abdomen, its meat from its bones. But at the W. R. Case Company, knives bring people together.

Among the collectors was Paul Fleming of Christchurch, New Zealand, who has made the trip for the fourth consecutive year. He’s a trader in things that aren’t common in New Zealand: Cuban cigars, Zippo lighters, and Case knives. He and his wife apply decorative engraving to the lighters and knives. I asked him what he liked about this event, and he said, “I like the madness.”

And madness it was. Who would expect that knives would create such excitement? I asked Fleming what he liked about our area. As his gaze swept across the green hillsides above Bradford he said, “I like the bush.” Yes, I like “the bush” too. We should call it that.

I saw several locals including Jim Graziano, retired teacher and school principal. I’ve known Graziano for a long time -- his sequence as top dog in three different elementary schools exactly matched my son’s advancement through grade school. (I’ve always appreciated that he wanted to be my son’s principal badly enough to keep transferring.)

A tabletop was covered with one-of-a-kind prototype knives, all up for grabs in a drawing, and Jim was the lucky winner of one of them. I also bumped into Gary Wallin and his son Matt. Gary is a registered Case collector, and even though he didn’t win one of the prototype knives, the Case people made sure he went home with a knife, too.

How serious are collectors of Case knives? Carl Steinhauser, a man I first met 40-some years ago while trout fishing in McKean County’s Sugar Run, has more than 6000. Another man told me over breakfast that he has more than 1000 knives, but uses only two. They’re just a few of the hundreds of people who were looking for more. Apparently no man will ever have enough knives.

One highlight of the event was the “Job Case look-alike contest” to identify the collector who looks most like the company founder. Of course, a graybeard won it, but just as notable was that many of the collectors had at least tinges of gray, if they had hair at all.

That would be a problem for most organizations, but not so much for the knife collecting fraternity. Gary Kennedy, collector and dealer from Grayson, Georgia, told me knife collecting is “a good old man’s hobby.”

I see some valid reasons for that. First, the older you get the more you appreciate history. Knives can talk, and they tell us lots about times past. Second, good knives aren’t cheap. It sometimes takes a couple of decades for a man to raise his kids and establish enough financial freedom to begin collecting seriously. Third, knife collecting is a hobby a man can enjoy from the time he begins slowing down until long after he starts using words like “whippersnappers.”

Besides that, Case knives are like art. In fact, they are art -- and you don’t have to be old to appreciate them. Whether plain or exotic, each one exhibits beauty and craftsmanship. Each Case knife is the product of more than 160 hand operations all proudly performed right here in America. So, if you’re ready for a new hobby -- whether you’re a graybeard or a whippersnapper -- why not take up knife collecting?


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