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Malachite’s Big Hole

J. Russell & Company & The Green River Knife:

John Russell was born March 30, 1797 in Greenfield, Massachusetts.  He was the eldest of seven children.  Little is known of his early life, except that he received a good education.  Typical of the times, he learned his fathers trade which was a goldsmith.  

At the age of 21, Russell left Greenfield for Georgia, where he speculated in cotton.  After some initial poor seasons, he was quite successful, and after twelve years had accumulated sufficient money that he could have retired.  In 1830 he left the business and married Julianna Witmer of Lancaster Pennsylvania, where he lived for the next two years.  Then in 1832 Russell made what was intended to be a short visit to see family and friends back in Greenfield.  

After two years of idleness, Russell was anxious to become again involved in a career.  His family persuaded him to return permanently to Greenfield which was rapidly growing with abundant commercial opportunities. 

Rather than enter an established industry or business, Russell choose the manufacturing of cutlery.  At age 35, he had no prior experience or background in cutlery manufacturing, and seems to have chosen this business on an emotional basis, being heavily influenced by the "Practical Tourist" a book published in 1832.  The book contained eloquent, almost poetic descriptions of cutlery manufacture in Sheffield, England.  His business was called J. Russell & Co.  

Sheffield, England was then a center for cutlery making which set the standard of quality against which other cutlery making centers, such as Solingen, Germany were judged.  At Sheffield the making of knives and other edged tools was not done in a factory or by a business venture. but was under the control of the guild.  Individual craftsmen, who had learned the skills of one step of the process of knife-making in a master/apprentice training program,  These craftsmen worked out of their own individual shops.  Steps in the process included: forging a blank piece of steel into the rough shape of a knife and hardening and tempering the steel; grinding and polishing the blade; finally, fitting a handle.  Once the knives were completed they were sent to the guild masters where they were inspected for flaws and imperfections. Knives which passed the inspection were considered to be perfect.  The process was slow and tedious, but resulted in the finest knives then being made in the world.  

Late in 1833, Russell completed a factory, powered by a 16-horsepower steam engine.  Machinery included a row of grindstones and emery stones, and two or three trip hammers for forging steel.  Russell did not start immediately in the manufacture of knives, but choose to start with chisels and axes.  Using only the finest English steels available as raw material, his products quickly earned a local reputation for quality. 

By September of 1834 Russell felt that he had the experience to commence manufacturing of knives.  His first prototype knives were simple butcher and carving knives, but as with the chisels and axes, made from the finest raw materials available.  As knife manufacturing increased in importance, Russell would gradually phase out chisels and axes. 

The early knives were stamped "J.Russell & Co American Cutlery." Although these knives had a local reputation for quality, most Americans of the time who were unfamiliar with the J. Russell Co. preferred knives from Sheffield.  

Within months of commencing manufacture of cutlery, Russell's factory had expanded in size, number of machines, and with an additional new steam engine. The steam engines were not an ideal source of power for the factory.  They were expensive to operate and maintain.  Many mills and factories in the area were powered by water and Russell sought a new location for his factory which could take advantage of this power source as well.  

By February 1836 Russell had purchased land and moved the factory to a location on the Green River (Massachusettes).  The new location came complete with buildings, a dam and was set up for utilizing water power. The factory had barely been set up when on March 15, 1836 a fire burned out the forging shop and production was halted.  Insurance paid out $4,000 for rebuilding the shop. The reconstruction had hardly commenced when a major flood swept away the dam and most of the buildings.  After the flood, Russell was left with little besides the land and a few machines that had been salvaged. 

Without the financial assistance of a wealthy individual, Henry Clapp, Russell may not have been able to rebuild the factory.  Clapp provided $10,000 to rebuild the factory, dam and bridge that had been at that location.  The new factory had one building which housed the forging room with twelve trip hammers.  Another building housed seventy grindstones and one hundred emery wheels.  A third building contained the hardening and tempering apparatus, with the hafting department in it's upper level.  The new factory was christened the "Green River Works" and knives produced here were stamped "J.Russell & Co.  Green River Works." 

In order to attract skilled workers to his factory, Russell paid wages at above the levels paid to cutlers in England.  The starting wage at the Green River Works was $10 per month for the first six month.  After that the worker could elect to be paid on a piecework basis.  An industrious worker could make as much as $25 to $30 per month.  

The mechanized methods used in Russell's factory allowed his workers to be as much as fifteen times as productive as the craftsman in the Sheffield guilds. The reduction in production costs made Russell's knives competitive in the market with the products of the Sheffield guilds.  The guilds however had an enormous manufacturing base, which combined with the will and resources to accept short term losses, could be used to crush competitors. The guild commenced to flood the American market with below cost cutlery. Had it not been for the financial panic of 1837, they might have been successful in driving Russell out of the business.

The panic, although a product of the U.S. banking institutions, and limited mostly to the United States, did have an impact on imports and did cause economic instability in Britain.  The economic uncertainty caused the guild masters to decide that they couldn't afford to accumulate losses in any of their markets, and they abandoned their plans to undersell the American companies.  

By 1840 the Sheffield guilds had recovered from the effects of the panic of 1837 and were again out to destroy their American competitors.  In order to survive under-pricing by the Sheffeild guilds, the American cutlery industry had to decrease production costs, and needed to establish the quality and value of American manufactured knives relative to the Sheffeild products in the mind of the American consumer.  At this critical time, J.Russell & Co. hired an English emigrant, Matthew Chapman.  Chapman was both a skilled cutler and mechanical genius.  He developed processes and machinery with which knife blades could be blanked and leveled, rivet holes punched, fork tines cut and bent, and handles rough sawed.  These and other innovations at the Green River works and other American cutlery manufacturers reduced production costs till the Sheffield guilds strategy of underpricing it products was no longer effective.  However, it wasn't until the "Green River Knife" was designed and produced that quality of domestically produced cutlery was overwhelmingly accepted by American consumer accepted.  

During the early 1840's was the beginning of the great westward movement of settlers to Oregon and California.  J.Russell & Company began manufacturing a simple, rugged, utilitarian hunting knife for these emigrants and buffalo hunters of the plains.  The knife, known as the "Green River Knife" was to be rugged enough to serve in any situation that might arise.  These knives were often shipped unsharpened so that the individual owners could then sharpen according to need and use.  The blade was about 8 inches in length with simple wooden handles.  English hunting knives by contrast were fancy and lightweight. Although all knives produced by J. Russell & Co. after 1837 were stamped "Green River Works," it was this simple hunting knife, the "Green River Knife" which assured the success of the company, and was the source of the myth and legend of the Green River Knife.  The Green River Knife became the source for various sayings and phrases related to quality and or doing a job right. 

The Green River Knife became a favorite of emigrants, buffalo hunters, Indians, miners and settlers.  Between 1840 to 1860 it is estimated that 60,000 dozen Green River knives were sent west.  The popularity of the Green River Knife was so great that American, English and German competitors would stamp their products with "Green River" in order to capitalize on the success of J. Russell & Co.  

With the success of the Green River hunting knife, Russell began to experiment with other new types of knives.  A more abruptly curved skinning knife was put into production which became almost as popular as the hunting knife.  A butcher knife, nicknamed the "Dadley", being slightly larger than the hunting knife was also produced.  All three of these knife styles came to be known as "Green River" knives.  Russell continued to expand his product line to include shoe knives, table knives and forks and occasional novelty knives including a knife designed for one armed amputees after the Civil War. 

For more information about John Russell, the J.Russell & Co. and Green River Works refer to: 

Merriam Robert L., Richard A Davis Jr., David S Brown and Michael E Buerger, The History of the John Russell Cutlery Company 1833-1936.  Published 1976, Bete Press, Greenfield, Massachusetts.  

Russell, Carl P. Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men, published by University of New Mexico Press, 1967.  448 Pages.

Hanson, James A.   The Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook, 1994, published by The Fur Press, Crawford, Nebraska.

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