The Case Cutlery Dynasty: Tested XX

Brad Lockwood
Collector Books, 2005

Why should you read a book about a family cutlery business that grew and flourished in the late 1800 and early 1900s?

Well, because it's my family! That's a good reason for me to read it, but what about you?

In a way, this book could be the story of any of our families at a critical juncture in American history. The period of the late 1800s to the early 1900s was, quite literally, the era of the Wild West. Americans were moving restlessly west, staking claims, scratching out existences, and behaving with a singular lack of restraint that is both our envy and our shame today.

It was a time when few laws inhibited the formation and operation of entrepreneurial endeavors - when dirty business like a cutlery could actually be started in someone's barn or back room, and rather than complaining about it, the neighbors would be lined up to get a job.

It was a time when families clustered in small towns, or moved en masse across the continent. When, if you needed a business partner, you most likely turned to your brother, cousin, or uncle. When whole families were joined together in the pursuit of that early version of The American Dream.

All of that, and more, is contained in Brad Lockwood's history of the Case family (my great-great-grandfather, JBF Champlin, married Theresa Case). Oddly enough, it was JBF Champlin who started the whole thing. He was a jobber for imported cutlery, and he eventually settled in the town of Little Valley, New York (south of Buffalo). When tariffs threatened his overseas supply, JBF decided to manufacture his own cutlery, and he started the Cattaraugus Cutlery. Eventually, he brought his brothers-in-law - the fascinating Case Brothers - into the business. And the rest of the story is the subject of this sometimes unbelievable, but all-true tale.

And tale it is. Lockwood's style is folksy, friendly, and often as amazed and amused as we are about his family's story. I won't give it all away, but suffice it to say in this book there are intrigue, backstabbing, family fidelity, multiple marriages, philandering, Indian attacks, horse thievery, prize-fighting, love, loss, high finance - all the things that make life in small town America fun!

I took advantage of the family connection - however diluted - to ask the author about writing the book, and about his other projects.

1. I always have to ask how a writer started writing. So many people imagine being a writer; so few people do it. So, how did you make the leap from imaging to doing?

My beginnings as a writer are directly tied to being a troublemaker. I was an infamous youth - the well-deserved “Class Clown” - so my parents would send me to my room as punishment. To make those hours being grounded pass quicker I found my older brother’s manual typewriter and just starting tapping. Now it’s akin to breathing to me but, back then, my early teens, it was just to make another sentence of solitary confinement more tolerable. After a while, when my mother would come to tell me I was forgiven and could come back downstairs, I’d be like, “Um, give me a little more time, I’m in the middle of a story...”

Everyone is a writer though; when I tell someone what I do they invariably say, “I’ve got a great story!” What weeds out those who think they are – or want to be - from those who actually are writers is accepting the demands of hours and hours of creating, alone. Writing a book usually takes up to a year (Tested XX took 4 total – 2 doing research and another 2 writing, rewriting and editing) so it’s a highly solitary sport. Few other than writers can fully understand what it takes to finish a book...

2. I grew up with cutlery stories, and vaguely remember the last futile attempts to resurrect the Cattaraugus Cutlery. But you said you didn't hear much about the cutleries growing up. How did your interest get piqued?

In America, every town has some industry that built it, and everyone seems related to someone famous, but over time, the stories we hear may be more myth than actual histories. My Grandma Jo would captive us kids, telling us wonderful tales of our ancestors traveling across the country every year to sell; it was a fantasy world of wealth and yarns set in the “Wild West.” Then we lost her to cancer in 1996 and, suddenly, there was a huge void. We’d not only lost our beloved grandmother but last living connection to the cutlery industry. Afterward I started digging, more for my own knowledge than any hope of writing a definitive history of the industry and our family. But what I discovered was so extraordinary that I had to keep digging, meeting new relatives and hearing new stories. It was serendipity: Losing a grandmother to truly discover a much larger family.

3. Were you close to the extended family growing up? Did you discover new relatives (other than me, of course!) in this process?

It’s funny but I now think there isn’t anyone in Western New York that I’m not related to because of knives... My mother would tell me, “Please, stop, I don’t want to know any more!” Little Valley, New York (where I grew-up) is a small community of a little over one thousand, very unique and proud, which was the hotbed of cutlery domestic manufacturing for 99 years. It’s an area built around the industry, manufacturers importing masters from England and Germany, mixing into the community and intermarrying. We may be inbred but we made some fine blades...

The “Case Cutlery Dynasty” is actually the combination of five intermarried families – The Champlins and Platts led the development, bringing their in-laws, the Cases, then other families, Brown and Burrell, into the business. In time there were over 50 relatives in the industry – And the family clan started no less the 32 different companies, which is unparalleled in American business. Of course the industry was too small for so many relatives, and infighting and feuds eventually forced them to part ways and compete against one another. The result was relations making knives in Western New York, Pennsylvania, and Boulder, Colorado, and employing people elsewhere, in Arkansas, Tennessee – You name it, where people needed knives, our family was there, selling and sometimes settling... Just tracking them down to interview was the first of many feats in documenting this book. Interestingly, some of the stories I’d heard from my Grandma Jo when young – some so fantastic they couldn’t be true – were being retold by other unknown relatives. Many myths were dispelled, but most were confirmed by meeting so many far-flung relatives. It was both a relief and an honor, and I now get too many invites to family reunions than I can possibly attend.

4. You were pretty frank about the Case brothers – Jean, Andrew and John – kind of being Peck's Bad Boys. It's got to be a challenge to paint an honest picture of a relative who's a scamp.

In approaching the history of my own family I had to be honest: Why spend years researching then whitewash the truth in the final book? The Case brothers were a wild bunch – as good at selling knives as selling themselves. They would do anything for money, riding in the Pony Express, running freight into the mining camps in the Rockies, known to have cavorted with Frank and Jesse James, horse-thieves, and of course creating and selling some of the most beautiful and collectible knives in America. They were men of their time, including philanderers – My great-great grandfather Andrew Jackson Case may be the basis for the joke about the traveling salesman and farmer’s daughter... Still he’d return home, back to Little Valley, until the day he died. As humorous as it is tragic, descendants of Jean Case recently received notice of land changing hands in Oklahoma – Land that Jean had given to a mistress almost a century ago...

It may sound strange, but the more depraved the men were, the more I came to respect and adore their wives – remarkable women who kept the family together for months on end as their husbands were off selling and carousing. They may have been men of their time but it was their wives who made their success possible.

5. For people interested in tracing their families' roots, did you use any tools other than oral histories and memorabilia? For example, how did you find out so much about the family's activities out west?

If you’re trying to trace your family’s history, genealogy especially, I would warn you not to trust anything online. There are too many scams and even the largest database, the Mormon’s, was initially created by individuals posting their own histories, which are self-serving and highly suspect. That said, and after many dead ends, I focused on original source material: diaries, deeds, Wills, letters, local histories, newspapers and interviews (but both are also biased and need to be confirmed). Because I was family, many relatives opened their attics to me; but some interviews were rather trying, with 80 year-old women snatching the pen out of my hand, declaring, “Don’t put that in the book!” It took months, even years, to earn their trust, and eventually that same woman would say, “Well, maybe it’s time the truth was told, you can put that story in the book...”

The stories from out west were the most difficult to obtain but I think I did them justice by the response from readers. I’ve always questioned the concept of the “Wild West” and needed an accurate portrayal: Cowboys and ranch-hands couldn’t even afford a pistol, making knife- and fist-fights much more common than high-noon shoot-outs, and I wanted to offer the reality versus another spaghetti western... The Cases helped settle southwestern Nebraska, doing business in Dodge City and Abilene (both notoriously rough cattle towns) and I found first-hand accounts of locals doing business with the Cases, buying horses, cattle and knives. A plot of land owned by my great-great grandfather was also owned by “Wild Bill” Hickok... I just had to look – again remain faithful to the truth – and slowly pieced together much more than I’d hoped. Writing any family history is daunting but each lead must be chased down, searched further until confirmed or disproved. Who knows what letter or story is out there if you don’t look?

6. One of the things that fascinated me about your book was how truly "wild west" things were at the time (1880-1920) when most of the growth in the cutlery business was happening. You must have learned a lot about history in general as you worked on this book.

I actually wrote Tested XX twice – the first was a history of the family, then a full history America, politics and industry. Because the family and industry go hand-in-hand, in order to understand one I had to know the other. Like the fact that first knife manufactured in Little Valley was sent to William McKinley – then Governor of Ohio. JBF Champlin was hoping for increased tariffs on foreign cutlery imports (which would help his upstart domestic manufacturing at Cattaraugus Cutlery), and McKinley, once elected President, promptly levied a tariff up to 50%. This led to a boom in cutlery companies – especially in Western New York. But McKinley was soon assassinated, bringing the reformer Teddy Roosevelt into power. Though infighting and ever feuding, the family had a monopoly that was surely a target of antitrust regulation. The turn of the century was indeed a wild time in the industry, comparable to the earlier gold rush and recent Internet boom (and bust), leaving the family both dependent on and vulnerable to politics and change – multiple World Wars were pretty good for the knife business too...

7. I enjoyed the style you adopted for this book: it's very much like listening to someone telling a tale as opposed to a straight chronological history. Was this a conscious decision?

It’s my voice as a writer, developed and evolving after writing many books. Folksy yet informed, I like to imagine readers sitting beside me, fireplace flickering, listening and sharing. I trust my readers and they seem to appreciate that. I could write highly philosophical and annoyingly complex but what’s the use if readers can’t relate and don’t understand the underlying story? Certainly first hearing these stories being recited by my Grandma Jo made this voice ideal for the book.

8. Did the writing of the book change you? If so, how?

I joke that I’m now the #1 Best Selling Author at Swap Meets... It’s a strange celebrity but I embrace it. My other published books have been fiction so a nonfiction book of this size and scope has opened many new doors. Also, being a father, I think it’s important that my daughter and other relatives can now know the history of our family without having to go through the years of research that I did.

Seeing the impact of this book has been very humbling as well. I didn’t pull any punches about the people, our past, nor the polluted land left behind after the industry ended in my hometown. Western New York is the Rust Belt and I used the book to raise money for local libraries – over $7,000 so far. Amazingly, the Little Valley library has sold around 200 books – that’s 20% of the town embracing our shared past. A couple from Texas read my book and bought the old empty Cattaraugus Cutlery factory in Little Valley (up through World War II it was the biggest in world, and you can see their progress at Now the EPA is cleaning up a century of toxins (knife-making uses harsh acids in the process) so hopefully that building will be saved, resurrected, put back in use and employing local people, and maybe knives again being made in town some day, which would be the ultimate reincarnation.

Most interesting is a new view I have of America. I now live in Brooklyn, and New York City is a very liberal, but all of the book readings and signings I’ve done have been in the south and west, where our knives are collected and coveted. This has given me a rare perspective into multiple worlds. People are people, wherever we live, and I’ve learned that the only things dividing us as a country are politicians trying to get elected.

9. You've written fiction as well as this book, and you write feature stories for New York Press. Tell me a little about your fiction.

Fiction is my focus. I’ve found that researching and writing nonfiction feeds material for my novels. Haunted, maybe a bit debauched, my fiction has been compared to Steinbeck, which I’ll hardly refute. My novels “Sellout” and “Wink” have done very well, and I’m proud to report that my next novel is completed and with my agent. Selling and actually releasing a book can take longer than writing it, so I use NY Press (a major weekly syndicated newspaper) as an outlet for more immediacy. They let me write whatever I want, from book reviews to investigative feature articles, and I must be doing something right because I get both praise and death-threats. Those pieces are available online so Google with caution.

10. What is your next project and when can we expect to see it?

In addition to my novel, I just completed an historical investigation of the notion of giants – why do we need Goliath, Bigfoot? And, how has Osama bin Laden come to be known as tall and towering when he stands at hardly 6’? This is a large piece, quite literally, so I’ll either publish it myself or place it with maybe Smithsonian or Harper’s Magazine. My next book may be about a young magician uncovering a secret Mason plot to save George W. Bush’s legacy, but I doubt it. I write whatever interests me, and I’m grateful that readers follow and enjoy my whims.

To get a copy of Tested XX, go to:


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