A Deeper Look at the Napanoch Knife History
“Napanoch means land overflowed with water.” In the 1800s, if someone wanted to venture into the cutlery manufacturing business, there were some basic requirements if they wanted to be even remotely successful. Probably the first and most crucial necessity would be a constant power source. During this period of time, waterpower ruled. Look at any of the early manufacturers, and you will find they were located on sources of waterpower. In fact, we have discovered that squabbles broke out between companies situated on the same water source as one could restrict flow downstream in order to cause problems for their competitors. The New England/ New York area had numerous good sources of waterpower. Still, even those would dry up occasionally, causing a stoppage in operations until the wet weather replenished the source.
Next on the list was the ability to ship and receive goods. That is equated to either extensive waterways like the Hudson River and/or rail transportation. If you can’t get the goods to market or obtain your materials, then once again, you are doomed for failure—another reason you didn’t find remote successful manufacturers that were off the grid. The business relied upon the ability of people and goods to move about freely. This also ensured employees the opportunity to relocate easily and make roots in the new surroundings. The 1800s saw a migration of workers from the eastern shore slowly make their way across to New York state and beyond, searching for better pay and conditions. A cutler skilled in razor grinding could make a good living in those days and have his choice of locations. Knife grinders weren’t considered as skilled as those who made finely designed straight razor blades. Just give each and good look and see the difference in the grinding requirements of the two blades. Now picture yourself setting in front of a large spinning wheel and attempting to get that perfect profile on a razor time after time. An artistic craft that has long since been forgotten.
I always found it interesting when someone wrote about an early cutlery company; they typically say they started in such a such year, and off the story goes. The truth is no one sat around in the 1800s and said, “Hey, let’s start a knife factory.” If one digs a little deeper, you’ll discover that in every case, someone had some experience in the business and saw an opportunity. By the late 1800s, the United States had generations of cutlery workers. That is the case for the historic Napanoch company as well.
Historians knowledgeable of knife making in Wawarsing area that it began in the early 1800s with names like John L. Bloomer, Ira Canfield, Demmon C. Stone, and A. H. Southwick. They manufactured axes first as individuals and then as D. C. Stone & Co, then as the Napanoch Axe and Iron Company, then as A.H. Southwick & Co., and again by Demmon C. Stone, and by John Leverett of Leverett Axe and Edge Tools, and then in progression by Gabriel Ludlum, Austin Melville, Frederick Bange, Gilbert DuBois, and by Marcus Pillsbury. Napanoch Axes journeyed in the Conestoga wagons that migrated to the west. The manufacturing of Napanoch Axes enticed craftsmen and financiers to make this area home and used their know-how to start their own factories, which brought more skilled cutlery artists to work here. This area had something most did not. The Napanoch Forge certainly made this location favorable because a steady supply of metal made tool making a lucrative business.
Some famous cutlery names came from the manufacturing of Napanoch Axes. John Russell, who started an edge tool factory in 1866 that later became the Tobacco Knife factory in 1876 and then later the John B. Russell Knife Works — a company that stayed in business well past his death in 1893 and became the Humphrey Knife Factory in 1912; and The Ellenville Co-Operative Cutlery Co, that became the Ellenville Knife Company in 1872, attracted skilled blade making craftsmen trained in Sheffield, England, including Major Dwight Devine, Alfred Neafie, William Boothe, and R. H. Brodhead, and began manufacturing fine knives in 1871. The Ellenville Knife Company became the Ulster Knife Co in 1875 and became Dwight Devine & Son in the early 1900s.
William Carmen and his brother Irving were literally born into the cutlery business. Their father, William Henry Carmen, was a cutler of German descent. Like many others, he immigrated to the New England area to utilize his skills for a better life in the United States. Both of the Carmen brothers trained for several years under the guidance of the Dwight Devine company of the Ulster Knife dynasty. William Whitely founded the Napanoch Knife Co. in 1900. He sold out to brothers Irving and William Carman and partner William L. Hoornbeek and set up shop in the former Duvall Rake Manufacturer on National Street. The company was incorporated several years later.
The local newspaper listed the following announcement in 1909.
“Articles of incorporation of the Napanoch Knife Company, whose principal office is in the town of Wawarsing, have been filed with the secretary of state at Albany and in the Ulster County clerk’s office. The company has a capital of $75,000, divided into 750 shares of the par value of $100 each, and will begin business with $1,000. The directors are William L. Hoornbeek and Irving E. Carman of Ellenville and William Carman of Napanoch. each of whom own four shares of stock.”
Mr. Hoornbeek and Mr. Whitley seem to play a small role in the eventual transformation of the company, as very little are found about their participation in the business. It was the Carmen brothers who carried it forward. The first innovative creation by the company happened before its incorporation. As you will see, a US patent was awarded in 1907 for an improved punch blade design. The patent showed two flutes or grooves, instead of the usual one, left of the centerline of the punch’s total thickness, making the blade less prone to breakage. At least that was the theory, as a punch blade was almost a necessary tool for the average worker at this time. It was used to repair and work with various harnesses and leather goods. You’ll notice, too, that William’s wife, Susan Carman, was also listed as an assignor. She was of English descent and William of German. This was at a time when the two factions often quarried over styles and the construction of cutlery. Maybe an early “West Side Story” in the knife world. This would not be the only invention that William would patent.
The original Napanoch Knife Company only maintained a handful of employees. Obviously, they were highly skilled as the quality coming forth from them at the turn of the century was some of the best the United States had ever seen. According to the NY State Department of Labor Statistics, in its hay day around 1912, it topped out at 40 employees. Among those employees was a young man named John Cushner, born in 1882 in Napanoch and married Anne Higgins, born the same year as John and in the same small town. Ann lived until 1973. John started at the knife factory in 1903 and quickly earned a name for himself.
The list of customers Napanoch made knives for is extensive, and more are discovered as information is revealed. A shortlist would include knives for Kelly-How-Thomson Co. “Hickory “ Duluth, MN, Wilbert Cutlery Co, Chicago, Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett, Chicago, Challenge Cutlery Co. Bridgeport, CT, Henry Sears, St Paul, MN, Will Roll Bearing “W. R. B.” Terre Haute, IN, Ulery, Keene Cutlery Co., and many others. Napanoch was known for quality, not quantity.
The Winchester name was dominant during this period of time. They had a number of items that displayed their brand name, from flashlights to wrenches. Knives only made sense for this big company, and they wanted the very best to maintain their quality reputation. That leads them to Napanoch as a “prestige” brand. Between 1919 and 1921, Winchester bought the Eagle Pocket Knife Co. Mack Axe Co. and Napanoch to get the skills and equipment necessary to make knives. This connection to the famous Winchester name gave a lot of charisma to the Napanoch brand among collectors even today. Still, the company realized early on that knife manufacturing was not a profitable business venture for them.
The sale to Winchester happened in 1919. They continued to make knives under both the Winchester and Napanoch name. Some Winchester knives have the distinctive punch blade patented earlier, and some do not. They had a manufacturing operation as the Eagle Knife Company in New Haven, CT, and the Napanoch factory. The Eagle group was known for modern production techniques and assembly-line construction, while Napanoch was pure craftsmanship. “Knives as good as the gun” was the company motto. By the early 1920s, the Winchester knife business began a slow unwinding. By the 1940’s Winchester discontinued all knife-making operations.
Beginning on Thursday, January 27, 1921, some ex Napanoch employees set up shop in the old Napanoch factory under the name Honk Falls Knife. The American Cutler reported when the plant re-opened;
“The Honk Falls Knife Co is the name of a pocket knife concern which has re-opened the factory formerly operated by the Napanoch Knife Co at Napanoch NY having been incorporated January 21, 1921, with a capital of 10,000 The directors of the company are John J Cushner Melvin Schooner Wilson Quick and George F Brackley the first three having been formerly employed the old company for several years before the plant was sold to the Winchester Repeating Arms Co They were among the Napanoch employees who went to New Haven they remained from July 1919 until 1 1920 then severing their Connecticut Cutlery to return to Napanoch for the purpose forming a company to operate the old plant The machinery is new and up to date and the present time the concern employs about ten operatives. It is the intention of them to increase the force as soon as available Messrs. Cushner and Quick are as indicated experienced cutlery men and they will be in charge of manufacturing. George F Brackley, an experienced accountant, will take care of the financial end. He was formerly connected with the General Electric Co at NY where he was employed in the accounting department and was also in service of the State of New York at the as an accountant.”
Unfortunately, this concern met the same fate of many cutlery companies during this period. In 1929 the Honk falls factory was destroyed by fire, but Honk falls knives continued to be manufactured in Napanoch in a different location. When Winchester went into receivership, the Napanoch name and the intellectual property, i.e., the patents and trademarks, came with it. The owner of Honk Falls, John Cushner, began making Napanoch marked knives in Napanoch once again. In February 1931, Cushner remodeled an old barn behind his home into a working knife manufacturing operation. As the sole owner, his small troop of dedicated workers started making Napanoch knives once again.
In 1930 we find that Mr. Carman was still dabbling in the knife business, although not with Napanoch. This patent was filed in 1927. It describes an innovative way of using roller bearings to reduce the wear on the back spring of the knives. It would be very interesting to find a working example of this knife. It is indicative of the creative ideas the knife makers of this area brought forth to improve their products.
One would be remiss if they didn’t mention the historical contribution made by collector Rhett Stidham and his book “Napanoch, A White Man’s Knife with A Red Man’s Name.” He published portions of the catalog of Napanoch knives listing over 80 designs, praised by Stidham as “The Napanoch knives were and still are recognized as the best that can be made…”
Tragically, John Cushner was killed in an automobile accident on Route 209, the main route through town, in December of 1938. Nevertheless, the company continued until all orders were filled by his loving daughters. The last Napanoch knife left the factory in the spring of 1939. The factory was then discontinued, and the machinery and stock sold.
So, did this spell the final demise of this historical brand? Oh no, far from it. The Daniels Family Knives recognized the historical significance of this company and proudly added it to their product line. I advise you to watch the transformation of these knives as big plans are in place to pay homage to one of the greats. Of course, some can replicate, duplicate, and copy, but only a dedicated knife aficionado can create knives that carry on a tradition like Napanoch. The Daniels family is undeniably that group.