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I wonder how sharp knives on the prairie were kept?

Discussion in 'Traditional Folders and Fixed Blades' started by Macchina, Sep 8, 2016.

  1. neal70

    neal70 Gold Member Gold Member

    Jun 3, 2015
    I guess I should have posted I'm in Nebraska, German on both sides of Mom's family, my dad's was rural California, Chino, men's state prison(1grandfather worked there) but the Ne folks I'm 5th and 7th gen in country. Those folks were farmers 3/4 of the year and carpenters the rest of the time. Everything was sharp, all the tools. I don't know if they had a sharpening day, something that used to be regular at least once a month with the carpenters, in addition to touching up before the current job. The oldest stones I have for sure are from '46, and they're a set of hard white Arkansas stones( 4", 8", & 5" slip stone I use for recurves and turning) I'd guess all the soft stones just got used up and the hard ones lasted longer, as long as you didn't drop them- but I've still got pieces of stones cause you never ever throw them away. Plus they might work a little better depending on what your sharpening. Think inside spoke- or chair seat shaves, curved cutting tools. Point being, sharp as they could. Always. The dull blade turns and cuts it's master.
    Thanks , Neal
  2. donn

    donn Gold Member Gold Member

    Sep 14, 2002
    Supra, great scans! Fascinating reading.

    My dad grew up on a farm. Carried this Richards camp knife for the first half of his life.

    Like others have said, he kept it 'sharp enough'. He used an Arkansas oil stone to sharpen it and his chisels and wood plane. Sharpening wasn't an exam or something to be proud of, it was just another chore you had to do to maintain your tools.
    Interestingly if he needed a REALLY sharp knife he'd use a Stanley knife.

    A little way out the country but one of my dad's uncles was a Task-master in the Lancashire cotton mills. I'm not sure why but as part of his job he'd learnt to sharpen knives. He would spend hours sharpening the knives of the house using a steel then cut wafer thinslices of bread with a huge carving knife (not a bread knife!).
  3. We have romanticized knives, much like history. Most cowboys were freed slaves that came west to find work. Not gunfighters, outlaws, hired muscle etc. Cowboys. Most cowboys used a horse/rifle/saddle etc from the ranch they worked on, if they had their own pistol or rifle they were lucky, especially if it was a brand new Henry lever action or a brand new Colt Single Action Army. Many cowboys spent their money at the bars and brothels when they got their stock to the railways. Supposedly they kept their fixed blades, usually butcher knives like the mountain men used, in their bedrolls, and a clasp knife, or if they were lucky a big jack knife, in their pockets. Maybe that clasp knife was the tactical knife of the day, their go to EDC, easy to grasp with gloved hands.

    But we romanticize the cowboy. Noble poet of the prairie. We romanticize that hard way of life.

    My mothers father grew up in Baltimore, with family on the Maryland Eastern Shore. He was a Marine, and when he returned home after the war, he sold school buses. He was good friends with Robert Mitchum, after meeting him at a crowded diner on the Eastern Shore where both shared a booth (no special treatment for a movie star back then, you wanna eat, eat with him). Even though he didn't get to see my grandmother and mother all the time, he got to drive all over the Eastern Shore. In a full suit, all the time. I romanticized that, but it was probably a royal pain in the kiester for him.

    My other grandfather, my fathers father, was a salesman. Insurance salesman for most of my fathers childhood, then a car salesman/gas station owner when my father was older, and finally a soda delivery man when I was very young, all over MD and southern PA. My grandfather got to drive all over. I went with him a few times. I've romanticized his travels. He was away from my father and uncles and aunt when he worked.

    All of our forebears would have said we literally have no idea how good we have it, they would love to trade at the drop of a hat, and they would truly appreciate it I believe.

    I was listening to a podcast this morning on my way in to work, by a comedian Joey Diaz. He said that people today are spoiled, most of them. I admit freely, I am spoiled. I grew up poor, right now I have a good job but I'm not raking in the dough, I spend my $ on frivolous things like these knives we enjoy. When I was a kid I had two choices at dinner time, take it or leave it. As I grew older, I realized that, if I was eating at home, I was eating what mom put on the table.

    I really enjoy using these old knives. Not just the patterns, but actual old knives I've resurrected from the bottom of the junk peddlers table at the flea market or farmers market. I've brought back some great knives from the pit of repair despair. I wonder if their previous owners gave them a second glance. I used to think, how could these kids/grandkids of these previous knife owners toss such nice knives away, that a flea market dealer or a yard sale addict like me found them at a great price?

    Maybe the previous owner just tossed them in a desk or bureau drawer and forgot about them.

    I choose fantasy, like when I found that old Remington whittler, with worn down blades, and thought it was well used but well cared for. It felt good in my shirt pocket, and I act like a raccoon with a shiny bauble when I come across it in my collection.

    My little brother appreciates a good knife, but is not the knife nut I am. He likes balisongs, that's about as much excitement for knives he exhibits. Oh yeah, I gave him a Gossman PSK for skinning/hunting, he loves that. But when my grandmother passed, she gave him my grandfathers old pocket knife. It was a Pepsi advertising knife, Colonial made I believe, my little brother still has it. It was given to him, he sold Pepsi products. Nothing fancy, just well used and one of many that my Jogie (Polish for grandfather, I couldn't for the life of me tell you the right spelling) carried.

    Still cool to see though.

    For years I didn't know that my grandmothers, great aunts, great grandmothers sharpened their kitchen knives on the front stoop in Baltimore, the coal hills of PA, the coal hills of NJ. Like others have stated, I don't think that they needed super sharp knives back in the day.

    The samurai are an altogether different subject ;)...
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2016
  4. neal70

    neal70 Gold Member Gold Member

    Jun 3, 2015
    IIRC, I've seen stats that say 1 in 3 Cowboys were African-Americans. Not sure what the ratio really was, but it makes a lot of sense for freedmen(and women) to come to a frontier, where what ya did and how well you did it mattered most. You look at the old tin-type pics and have to wonder about the knives those guys so proudly displayed- were they the"good" knife, a new one(good reason for a photo-op), or their regular users? Some were so big you hafta believe they were for big game-bison/buffalo, elk, people, whatever. $.02
    Thanks, Neal
  5. xtonesterx


    May 26, 2009
    great video! thank you for sharing. when i first started getting into knives over ten years ago the first thing i taught myself was to hand sharpen on an old wet stone that has been in the family for decades. was my grandpa's, then my pops, now its mine. i used that stone and only that stone to sharpen my knives for years and knew no better but was more than pleased and proud with the edge i could get. now i have two diamond stones i use and i dont even know what grit they are haha. i still use my pops wet stone when i just need a couple of swipes really quick. now and days i see all these amazing sharpening systems that people get these nice mirror polished edges with which is really nice but i just cant see myself spending hundreds of dollars on a system when i can get an edge im more than happy with with a couple of stones. honestly i just prefer a more toothy edge for my day to day cutting tasks. just my two cents.
  6. jmarston


    Dec 6, 2010
    I do love thinking about these things.
    I have acquired some knives from my grandfather's days and most likely some of them were his dad's as well. I realize these are not the "old west" but some are certainly depression era and previous. They come from a line of dairy farmers and knives were most certainly tools. Some old butcher knives I have found look to be sharpened on a very coarse stone; likely the carborundum stones that seem so common for that era. I also know that at one time they did possession and old foot powered grind stone where I would bet most of the sharpening was done. To this day, my grandfather seemed to prefer toothpick style knives and often with the shell covers. Not hair shaving sharp but sharp enough to trim a finger nail. Always user sharp but no need for razor sharp. His knives are all very simple. Enough to get by but not much more.
    Interesting contrast to my other grandfather who loves stag handles, multiple fancy hunting knives with factory edges as I found them recently. One who wirked highway patrol in his county. Certainly had knives but used them very differently.

    I feel very fortunate to have a part of my family history. Even better as knives for a knife nut I am and always will be. I will clean up and sharpen these old treasures of mine and will certainly use them on my own homestead. And I just might take them to hair shaving... just for the fun.
  7. Guitarist7.62


    Mar 1, 2015
    May I bring up that many times along the frontier, sharpening stones where quite rare. Many tools were sharpened with just a file and left as is. Ray Mears brings up that a man would almost be considered rich if he had dedicated sharpening stones. I'm assuming many a flat river Rock were used when they had access to them, but how many Praries have rivers big enough to create flat enough stones in the Midwest? Some but surly not all. In the later years of the West, say 1890s to 1910 sharpening stones, and things of all sorts where flowing west thru the RailRoads. Before the RailRoads you only had what you and your closest neighbors brought from back east. Files being the primary source for sharpening meant very toothy edges. Dull? By today's standerds yes, but does it cut? Yes.
  8. Macchina

    Macchina Gold Member Gold Member

    Apr 7, 2006
    Great videos and AWESOME scans. Thank you very much everyone who has had stories to add, amazing reads!
  9. mnblade


    Feb 7, 2000
    Folks on the prairie were sure to have very dependable, very basic tools, including -- surely -- means to keep knives, sickles and scythes sharp. A thin-bladed carbon steel knife akin to a Dexter or Old Hickory is extremely easy to put a VERY sharp edge on, even with nothing more than a crude (by today's standards) stone. Especially if you aren't bothered about the aesthetics of the knife; keeping it scratch free.
  10. jackknife


    Oct 2, 2004
    I've seen that same thing in many places. When I was stationed in Italy for a short spell, I rented an off base small apartment, and when I got off at 1600 hours, I'd go home and grab a shower and dress to out on the town for the evening. The old Italian ladies that lived there all came out around that time to sharpen their knives on the stone steps, getting ready to prepare dinner. They all had wood handle kitchen carving knives with almost black blades, and I can only guess that the edge they put on the blades was enough for slicing what they had to slice for dinner. The very toothy edge would probably go right through food stuff.
  11. supratentorial


    Dec 19, 2006
    This blog has some great photos of knife grinders from around the world. This photo is from the end of the time known as the Old West but from Baltimore, not the West.


    That's a good point. I'm glad you said it and I didn't though. ;) BRL says buy the knife, not the story. But a lot of folks enjoy the stories. Fantasy is often more pleasant than history. But sometimes history is just as extraordinary.

  12. black mamba

    black mamba Gold Member Gold Member

    Oct 21, 2009
    My granddad was born the same year as the great Springfield, 1906. He always carried a 3ΒΌ" stainless handled pen knife, with a spear main and a very small pen secondary. The tiny blade he kept super sharp for digging out splinters, etc. (he was a carpenter and farmer). The larger spear blade he kept sort of dull for cleaning out his pipe. Given that he learned his knife skills from a father who did grow up in the frontier era, I'd say that was pretty common practice. Just like it is now, some people took care of their stuff, and others didn't. They certainly knew how to get a blade sharp, sharp.
  13. afishhunter


    Oct 21, 2014
    I think it would depend on the owner of the knife, his (or her) definition of "Sharp Enough", and skills at sharpening. In other words, the same as today.
  14. The Mastiff

    The Mastiff

    Apr 21, 2006
    I still recall my grandfather on his ohio farmstead using a pedal powered grind stone out in the barn for all sharpening chores including jack knife sized blades. Everything was a tool and he was the last person to think about carrying the pocket jewels we now carry. Most of his stuff was a dollar or two knives including companies like "Ideal". He was too cheap for high end stuff like "case" or "schrade" . :) I still have a few of his and the blades were dull and nothing like a modern spyderco. It was near the same sharpness as his hoe, scythe, and even shovels.
  15. MarkPinTx


    Aug 21, 2003
    My mother's father was born in 1887. He was a general purpose farmer until after WWII in Arkansas. Like a lot of your forebears, I have a ton of his knives that have blades sharpened to nothing. I have a few with about 80% blades that I treasure. I also have his Washita stone, a carborundum stone with a handle that I believe was used for kitchen and butchering knives, and numerous dished out pocket stones.

    He kept his knives very sharp, at a near zero bevel. Probably about as sharp as you can get them using a single, rather coarse stone. Judging from the condition of all his stones, he did this sharpening often.

    Maybe not as old as you are asking, but definitely a working farmer. I think knives and whittling were kind of a hobby of his, in addition to the daily hard using he put them to.
  16. neal70

    neal70 Gold Member Gold Member

    Jun 3, 2015
    Anyone recall older gens having a bucket of sand with oil in it? You dunked your shovel, spade what have you in it and it scrubbed and oiled it at the same time. Been meaning to do that, just never quite get to it.
  17. deskil


    Dec 26, 2012
    When my mother's father retired, he bought 70 acres in Deep East Texas and moved from the coast, where he'd lived and worked in the refineries for 33 years. We visited most weekends and stayed with him and my grandmother through all extended school holidays and summer vacation when we were young.
    Down the road lived Mr. Powell, born in 1897. Old School, all the way. He still hitched his mules to his plow to turn his garden each year and had had no regular job that I ever heard talk of. One of the many diverse ways (some of which were of questionable, concerning their ethics and/or legality) he generated income was to make the rounds thereabouts with his foot operated grinding wheel, sharpening implements for the local population.
    I happened to be visiting once (on leave from the military) while he was set up under a mimosa tree with his sharpening apparatus, at work for hire.
    We were all eating watermelon, gleaned for the nearby fields after the pickers had been through. We (my brothers and our friends) used to follow a day or three behind them to retrieve the rejected or missed Charleston Greys and Black Daimonds to feed to the hogs and have ourselves a feast on the best of the lot.
    Mr. Powell notice me eating watermelon with my Puma and asked if it needed touching up. Now, I figured that since people had paid him for his sharpening services for years, he must know what he was doing when it came to putting an edge on a knife, and since I'd only had the knife for about a year (and had never sharpened it since I'd bought it new on base), I'd let him put a professional touch to its dullness.
    I should've inspected the apparatus first. The wheel was three inches wide, about two feet in diameter and no more than 36 grit. It wobbled and clacked like a rickety wrecked rail car. This I noticed after I'd handed him my Puma and as he began to rock his foot. I'll never forget that sound, as my blade was plunged into destruction. After the caterwauling ceased, he handed back what was left of my knife. It would undoubtedly have cut through elephant hide, but had lost a good quarter inch of useable steel in the process - and any aesthetic value it had ever had was but a fugitive memory.
    So much for Old School...
    Years later, I'd left the Service and had got myself married. The Puma I bought to replace the sacrificial one mentioned above was a few years old and I'd sharpened it a couple of times a year by mine own hand. One day, at work, I reached for my Puma, which was always in my pocket and found it missing in action. Must've left it on the dresser at home, as I was running later than normal that morning.
    When I got home after work, I asked my bride if she'd seen my knife. She beamed with the glad news that she had, in fact, seen it on the dresser. Then followed the not so glad news that, seeing as how it was a bit dull, she had sharpened it for me. I hesitated to ask, but after taking a gulp of air, found the wherewithal to inquire just how and with what had she managed to bestow such a gift.
    It seems she had used the sharpening wheels on the electric can opener to do the deed and opined that the knife had never been any good because it had taken hours to effect an edge. Then she presented me with the results of her efforts.
    I've never bought another Puma knife...and never will.
  18. neal70

    neal70 Gold Member Gold Member

    Jun 3, 2015
    ^^^^^^ Ha! Didn't itinerant tin-smiths also sharpen knives-tinkers? I believe they were called, although the term came to be used differently over time? Could be anecdotal, IDK.
    Neal( man that's rough)
  19. Halfneck


    Jun 30, 2005
    Great (but tragic) story deskil. Apparently you are not meant to own a Puma knife.
  20. zzyzzogeton


    Feb 17, 2013
    My family came over from the Germanies back in the 1840s and 1850s. They were mainly farmers, but one of my great-great grandfathers started a freight line in Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1848. He ran freight between W-o-t-B to/from San Antonio and the Texas/Mexican border, later adding a leg from San Antonio up to Waco.

    The following is a list of the knives in a generic Germanic farm family in Texas from 1848 to 1920...
    4 or 5 butcher knives for cutting up hogs, cows, sheep, goats, deer, turkeys, chickens
    1 bread knife
    2 or 3 paring knives for smaller kitchen work
    1 table knife for each family member over the age of 6
    1 good folding knife for each male over the age of 10. Under 10 had to make do with hand-me-down knives.
    1 good "belt knife" for each male over the age of 12.
    1 "worn out" hand-me-down paring knife for each household female, usually carried in her apron pocket.

    The butcher knives were described as being 8 to 12 inches long, the paring knives had 2 to 3 inch blades, the belt knives are described as being very like a Western L48 or Kabar 1232 Bird & Trout knife. They were all described as being very plain, with wood handles riveted on with steel, brass or copper pins.

    That is an average list from all 4 sides of my great-grandparents families. My father's side had fewer knives than my mother's side since it was her great-grandfather who had the freight business and therefore had a little more money and a lot ore access to "good stuff". My ggg, the freighter, is said to have carried a pair of large butcher knives (9 to 12 inch blades) as belt knives while on a freight run through "Indian country" - basically anywhere west of W-o-t-B.

    I gleaned the information over time by listening to them tell stories about the "old days" and asking a few questions during the tales. There was never a session where I would have said "OK, Papa, what kind of knives did y'all carry?" It was more like, "When we'd butchered a hog, I'd hit it in the head with a sledge hammer, and "so-and-so" would tie a rope to the hind legs and we'd pull it up on a pulley. Grannie would slit it's throat with a butcher knife and catch the blood for blood sausage........" And I'd ask "The big butcher knife or the little one?" or some similar question and file the answer away in my brain.

    Little tidbits would pop out, like the fact that they only had one table knife per person when a comment would be made about how many dishes were being washed at Christmas or other family gatherings. Like "Bah, we used to wash the dishes after each meal because otherwise we wouldn't have anything to use for the next meal."

    They all seemed to have had a single "good" stone for the kitchen and belt knives. The used, worn/rounded/dished stones would be put in the tool sheds for use on other tools like shovels, chopping hoes, picks, etc, and used files on the axes and mattocks. The more worn a stone became, the rougher the tool it was used on. The really worn stones would be used for the shovels and pick edges/points.

    Now, I'm trying to use relatively good English for relating these conversations. But think of them in gutteral Germanic accents with Germanic phrasing, because my family didn't really start speaking English in the homes until WW2. They learned enough English (and Spanish for the ones traveling south) to get by when in towns, but spoke whatever family dialect of German the spoke in the home.

    The only reason I am the "me" that is "me" is because my paternal grandfather spoke Plattdeutsch (low German or Wendish) rather than Hochdeutsch (what was used in Berlin/Munich/other big cities and what was taught in schools) and thereby survived WW1. His company was passing through a French village on the way to the front lines. The Hochdeutsch-only speaking Army intell officers in the village couldn't interrogate the low level German soldiers that had been captured. No sergeants had been captured with the men, who only spoke Plattdeutsch. Their sergeants would have spoke both languages and would interpret Hochdeutsch orders from the officers to the Plattdeutsch speaking privates. They asked the company commander if they had any German speakers. My grandfather was the only Plattdeutsch speaker and was the only one who could understand the German soldiers, so he was kept back to interpret. A week or so later, word came back that my grandfather's company had been gassed and had suffered nearly 100% casualties, most being deaths.

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