Last year, Roland Fornataro, 73, journeyed 2,500 miles from his home in Chula Vista, Calif., to Bradford, Pa. (pop. 9,175), to visit the factory of his favorite knife manufacturer—The W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Co.
Fornataro is one of 18,000 Case Collector Club members, the largest knife collectors club in the world, and his membership allows him a personal tour of the 57,000-square-foot factory, where thousands of pocket and hunting knives are produced each day by 450 employees.
"It was a marvelous, edifying experience," says Fornataro, who made the trip with his wife, Erina. "We had planned this trip for years. It makes you feel good to see these wonderful tools still being made by Americans."
Because every Case knife comes with a lifetime guarantee, Fornataro brought his old pocketknife and workers repaired and cleaned it during his tour, free of charge. "They returned this beautiful old Case knife I brought with me, with the broken tip repaired and all buffed up," he says.
"Visitors seem amazed after touring the facility," says Anne Kraft, a 16-year artisan who trains other employees in various stages of the knife-making process. "They can't believe all of the steps that we have, all the things we do for each knife," says Kraft, 47. "In fact, it takes 125 pairs of hands to create one knife, which typically comprises at least 16 different parts."
Artisans craft handles from materials such as Brazilian cattle bone, buffalo horn, rosewood and mother-of-pearl. Metals such as brass, nickel and silver adorn each handle, while steel blades are polished dozens of times until they achieve a jewel-like luster. Case marks each blade with an XX, signifying that the blade has been heat-treated twice to harden and temper the steel.
"From when we first start the knife in assembly all the way through, with all the work that goes into a knife, no two knives are the same," says Kraft, one of several members of her family working at Case. "Every knife is different because it's all handcrafted."
The company craftsmanship dates back to 1889, when four enterprising brothers—William Russell (W.R.), Jean, John and Andrew—began selling handcrafted knives from a wagon along the roads in upstate New York. "Around the turn of the century knives were essential to everyday life," says Fred Feightner, 42, the company's marketing manager. In January 1900, the brothers incorporated to form the first Case family brand, Case Brothers Cutlery Co.
W.R.'s son, J.R. Case, eventually took over the business and renamed the company after his father, forming W.R. Case & Sons. "By 1905, when W.R. Case & Sons moved to Bradford, the family name was already a legend in American cutlery," Feightner says.
Family ownership ended in 1985, followed by financial difficulties, including a brief bankruptcy. In 1993, famed pocket lighter manufacturer Zippo, also based in Bradford, purchased the company.
Today, Case offers some 2,000 individual knife styles, with names such as the Texas Toothpick, Baby Butterbean and Moose that often describe the knife's shape and size. Prices range from around $15 to several hundred dollars, depending on the limited production of the knives, which are sold through a network of 22,000 dealers nationwide.
The growing passion for Case knives has caught even some longtime employees by surprise. Toni Frontino, who has worked at Case since 1976, remembers when the company decided to hold a swap meet in 1995. Frontino, whose family room is filled with 4,500 Case knives in display boxes, was amazed when collectors from around the country showed up to buy collections from employees.
"That first swap meet made me really realize what I was working for, who I was working for, and what we are all about," she says. "We've become an American legend."