Whitehead Cutlery maintains family tradition
By Robin Jordan, Butte Weekly 7-24-13
Donna White remembers working in her father's store, Whitehead Cutlery, from an early age.
"He used to pay me a nickel to work all day," she said with a laugh. "My mother couldn't understand it. She said she'd pay me a quarter to stay home and do chores there."
Indeed, working with knives seems to run in the family. Whitehead's Cutlery lays claim to being the oldest continuously operated family-owned small business in Montana. White said she believes it is the oldest family knife store in the northwest.
"There was one knife store in Seattle that was older, but they went out of business," she said.
Whitehead's opened in 1890 when Joseph Whitehead came to Butte and opened a cutlery shop on south Wyoming after many years making a living traveling to mining camps throughout the region. Whitehead bought his own grinding equipment when he came to Butte. A St. Bernard on a treadmill originally powered the wheel he used to grind knives.
When Whitehead replaced the dog with an electric motor, the business became known as the Butte Electric Grinding Works. In 1903, the shop was moved to 15 N. Wyoming and renamed Butte Grinding & Cutlery Shop. Whitehead expanded the business to carry straight razors and barber supplies. He also offered skate sharpening services.
Whitehead's son Edward, White's father, joined the business in 1915 and became a partner in 1922. The store moved to its current location at 73 E. Park in 1955. White said her father actively worked in the store until months before his death at the age of 93.
On the wall of White's Candy Store next door, White has a display of historic photos of the store throughout the years, including pictures of White, her father and her grandfather.
White said through the years, her father collected knives and swords from around the world. She estimates approximately 150 weapons he collected are displayed on the walls of the store. The collection includes about 15 swords dating from the Civil War, German Nazi daggers from World War II, a ceremonial beheading ax from the Belgian Congo, Japanese Samarai swords and a bronze blade dated back to 500 B.C. that was excavated from the mountain of Luristan near the Caspian Sea.
As Whitehead amassed his collection, he numbered and tagged each item and recorded the description and any history of the item in a book, White said.
White said her father purchased many of the weapons in his collection from customers who brought them to the store to sell.
"People brought them in now and then. Maybe they needed money or they just didn't want to keep them around," she said. "It's hard to imagine displaying some of these on the wall in your living room."
White says she has always been fascinated by knives.
"Every knife is designed for a specific purpose," she said. "You can learn a lot of history by studying knives and how they were designed to be used."
Whiteheads carries all sorts of pocket and hunting knives, including handcrafted Ruana knives, which White said are noted for the quality of the steel used in their making as well as the fine craftsmanship. She said Rudy Ruana started the company in Bonner, MT in the 1930s and Ruana Knives is still a family-owned Montana business.
Whitehead's also carries a variety of swords, both for actual use, such as in fencing, and for display by collectors. The store also carries commercial as well as home cutlery, but White says she does not sell kitchen knife sets.
"Every person needs to choose his or her own kitchen knives," she said. "They have to fit your hand and be the right length and shape for the way you're going to use them. I'd rather sell them individually so people can make their own personal set."
Recently, White added a display of useful kitchen gadgets and utensils to the store's offerings. She said she chose several brands based on her own experience with them. As with the knives in the store, she wanted to offer sturdy products that worked well and offered customers a good value.
Whitehead's also carries scissors and shears for all purposes, including barber's scissors and razors. The store still carries ice skates as well and offers all sharpening services.