The first room in the building is full of artifacts and tchotchkes and documents and odds-and-ends and practical items presumably of use at one time – all from past eras. There are tools and weapons from the Civil War and every conflict since, up to Vietnam. There are arrowheads and axeheads, firemen’s helmets and commercial signage. An old blueberry-picking box. Maps. TV antennae. Ration books from World War II.
A lot of what has been gathered for exhibit seems unimportant now. If you were cleaning out your grandfather’s garage and found matchbooks and tickets and other such things, you’d probably just toss them into the trash. Collectors see things differently. “When you do find something that’s still intact, it’s history,” says Robert Pomerantz as he leads me around the building.
The Wawarsing Historical Society and Knife Museum is a treasure trove of this stuff and more, and it’s all meticulously arranged in display cases that fill the rooms. The villages of Ellenville, Napanoch and Wawarsing were, at one time, centers of manufacturing and industry, populated by men and women who used their hands to make things. And the Museum stands as a repository for any memorable collectible that its principals can get their hands on.
The fascinating draw, however, is the Knife Room: twice as big, with even greater collections of almost every sort of knife that has been made. This is the bonanza, the room where serious knife aficionados come to see specialty items no longer produced in the US. Once upon a time, the manufacturing of cutlery was strong in the Northeast, where immigrants from Sheffield in England landed and water power turned the wheels of industry. Companies from Pennsylvania to New England produced knives for every purpose: weaponry and specialized tools and fancy pieces with scrimshawed handles and engraved shafts.
Locally, knives were made for more than 130 years, by companies with names like the New York Knife Company, Ulster Knives, Grahamsville Knife Company, Honk Falls Knife Company, Napanach Axe & Iron Company and many others that now grace the contents of these display cases. And probably the one best-known in contemporary times is Schrade. The Schrade Cutlery Company, which started out in Walden, produced an astounding variety of knives from 1904 until 2004, when it abruptly shut down and was sold to a Chinese concern.
“Schrade was good to the community,” says Pomerantz. “Every Fourth of July, the company would give the Town of Wawarsing 300 commemorative knives to sell to people for $25 apiece, to cover the costs of having a parade.” The unfortunate exodus marked the end of an era. A few townsfolk walked through the factory in the days after it closed and found knife-blade blanks strewn all over the floors. Some managed to save these and other Schrade artifacts, which have become memorabilia on display. Founded in 2013 by Dr. Richard Craft (president), Rich Langston (vice president and head curator) and Pomerantz (secretary and knife curator) – all avid knife collectors – the Knife Museum now keeps history present in the minds of the community.
Change is a constant, but ignorance of what has gone on before our times is simply foolish. “I realize that in our society today there are many good causes, and history is probably not Number One on most agendas. I understand that,” writes Langston. “All I can say in response is that those who forget the mistakes of the past are destined to relive them.” These guys love to share their vast knowledge. Make the trek down Route 209 and check it out.
Wawarsing Historical Society & Knife Museum, Saturdays/Sundays through Labor Day, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Route 209 at 3 Irish Cape Road, Napanoch; (845) 647- 7792, www.theknifemuseum.com.