This article originally appeared in the 1980's in the Nunda Times by Tom Cook, a teacher at Keshequa Central School. It is used with permission of the author. See image 9 for a view of the Knife Works.
by Tom Cook
Once you could find them in nearly every state of the Union and in every kitchen drawer in Nunda. Now they are collector's items, carefully stored or proudly shown by families lucky enough to have one. What are they? The famous Woodworth Knives, made right here in good old Nunda for nearly sixty years.
When Charles Woodworth and his brother James came to Nunda in 1849, they found a growing community looking forward to the coming of the Genesee Valley Canal and a soon to be built railroad. The Village was at its peak of prosperity and population, and seemed like a good place for two talented blacksmiths. The brothers set up a foundry and soon were forging horse rakes, bells, and a special hop pole puller that James, the senior partner, had patented. They also made knives, but since Nunda already had a well established knife works run by Bela Wright on Massachusetts Street, the Woodworths concentrated on their other products.
The foundry and the brothers did well. In 1852 Charles felt comfortable enough to marry Hanna Elizabeth Bennett and start what eventually would be a family of ten children. Although six years later only his brother James was listed on Mill Street as one of four "Blacksmiths and Carriage Makers" in the village, it is likely that Charles was still working either with him or for him.
When the Civil War began in 1861, it didn't hurt business a bit. Neither James or Charles were swept up in the first waves of patriotism - but one can understand why, at least in Charles' case. His most recent addition to his already large family, a son Fred, was born the very year the war began.
But in 1863 the Union draft caught up with Charles. He could have purchased a substitute, a common practice in those days, but he joined Company R of the 52nd New York Volunteers instead. Charles survived the bitter battle of Chancellorsville, but the next year he stopped a rebel ball at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Although the wound wasn't fatal, doctors were forced to amputate his left arm just below the elbow. That, of course, was the end of his military career and, or so it seemed, the end of his livelihood. How could a one armed blacksmith support a large family?
The family was forced to move back to North Pitcher, Chenango County, to live with his wife's folks. Despite his handicap, Charles went back to work in a forge, this time making pitchforks. When a neighbor gave him some steel from a wagon wheel, he decided to forge these into butcher knives which he and his son Fred sold door to door. The knife business seemed profitable so Charles and his family moved back once more to Nunda where he established the Woodworth Knife Works in the basement of an old building on State Street.
In order to compensate for his injury, Charles adapted the machinery to be run by water, and by using a foot activated trip-hammer and a leather strap attached to his left elbow, he was able to operate the tempering oven and work the other steps in the production of the knives. He was certainly not one to let his handicap stop his productivity.
Charles lived until 1903, but had retired from his growing company several years earlier. Fred Woodworth took over the business in 1886 and moved it first to an old tannery building at the foot of Mill Street, then to a brand new two story factory on what was then called Bennett Street (now Woodworth Lane). It was this latter building that some may still remember.
The Woodworth family did well at their new location. By the turn of the century they employed family members and local residents-nearly twenty in all, and were selling butcher knives all over the country as well as a brisk local trade. Many area families bought them at the Town's Centennial in 1908, when the Woodworth's ran an advertisement for local people to "Take one our Knives home for a souvenir." These local knives were usually stamped with the Woodworth name, or at least "Nunda". But by far their most profitable business was in selling "blacksmith knives".
A Woodworth catalog from 1912 advertised "butcher knives made especially for the blacksmith's trade. Every blacksmith, no matter where located, is favorably situated for selling butcher knives to farmers. The Woodworth Knife Works made a specialty of these knives and are able to turn them out at such a low rate that blacksmiths everywhere can make a nice profit handling them." Blacksmiths could either purchase butcher knives that were "left in the rough, ready for blacksmiths to finish as their own....", or an assortment of forty-two finished knives and with their own business name stamped on them - all for $5.00. They also sold pocketknives and razors .
The knife business must have continued to be profitable, for in the 1920's another Nunda firm was formed to compete with the Woodworth Family. R.J. Cudebec and Lee Galentine set up on Portage Street and for a while produced knives marked "Sampson". It is not known how long that business lasted, but the Woodworth Knife Works was still in operation in 1933.
In November of that depression wracked year the Nunda News reported that "Fred W. Woodworth, pioneer knife manufacturer of Nunda, does business right through good times and bade times making up and selling hand forged knives to customers in nearly all states in the Union. His butcher knives and kitchen knives are widely used all over the country. It is doubtful if there is a knife maker with greater ability than Mr. Woodworth in the county, and he may be found every working day (except when he goes away fishing) stamping out knives, tempering them and putting the handles on at his factory in Mill Street."
It's not clear just how long the business remained in operation - Fred Woodworth died in 1939. It was certainly gone in 1948 when Marj Frost wrote a history of the Village, placing the Woodworth Knife Works as a part of Nunda's past. Even the Woodworth factory is gone - leaving only the family name on the "Woodworth Lane " to mark the site.
But we still have the knives. They have become quite a collectors item, and even rated an article in May 1994 Knife World magazine. Knife expert and columnist Bernard Levine reported that many of the "hometown" butcher knives supposedly made by the local "village smithy" were really the product of the Woodworth Knife Works in Nunda! How many of Nunda's knives can be found around the country is not known, but what ever the local blacksmith name that is on them, we can claim them as our own!
Frost, Marjorie C., Early Years: Town of Nunda 1808-1983, Nunda Historical Society; Burt's Printing Service, Inc., Dalton, NY 1983.
Frost, Marjorie C. "The History of Nunda From the Indian to the Airplane", Nunda News, September 17, 1948.
Hand, H. Wells, Centennial History of the Town of Nunda: 1808-1908, Originally published: Rochester Herald Press, 1908; Re-published: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, Interlaken, NY, 1993.
Nunda News, Nov 1933
Knife World Magazine, May 1994