Jan/Feb 2016Revisiting Herronby John Bigbie Jr.
George Herron is South Carolina's most renowned maker of custom knives, but have you ever heard the story behind the design of his "interframe" folding model?
I remember waking up from my barbeque-induced coma when the tires started shimmying along an unpaved stretch of red clay. Dad made the final turn and centered the car between two sandy ruts that cut through a grass-covered field. The outline of George Herron's country home and shop building appeared in the distance. I smelled chimney smoke on the fall air, and a row of trees, displaying the colors of autumn, stood alongside the bank of a blackwater pond, a setting that fit this world-famous knife maker perfectly. I was ten years old.
Dad parked the car, and I followed him through the shop entrance - a heavy metal door I could barely hold open by myself. Inside, steel shavings covered the blackened concrete floor, and grease spatter coated the industrial machines - their motor casings darkened by years of exposure to intense heat. The aromas of burnt tobacco, machine oil and raw metal intertwined to fill the room with a fog potent enough to flush lesser men out of their so-called man caves.
Herron halted his work as we walked in, relieving our ears of the high-pitched squeal from his grinding belt. A pipe hung from one side of his mouth, and a trail of smoke lingered behind as he made his way to the front. He sported a faded plaid shirt, complete with a tobacco pouch stuffed into the front pocket, and a rugged pair of work pants that bolstered his large pot belly. A thick pair of gray sideburns lined the sides of his face, and, like an ogre, his meaty frame towered over both of us.
Real Men Don't Do "Selfies"
Despite their decades-long friendship and mutual respect for one another (one of George Herron's popular fixed-blade knife designs was named the "Bigbie"), as John Bigbie Jr. found out when he began researching family archives and photo albums with an eye towards writing a story about the design of the Herron interframe folding knife, not a single photo of the famous South Carolina knife maker and his Dad, John Bigbie Sr., could be found.
Frankly, it's not all that surprising. Make no mistake about it, while George Herron was always gracious about posing for South Carolina Wildlife photographers like Art Carter or Ted Borg, he was also a "man's man," and probably not given to spending much time thinking about his own image. Neither was John Bigbie Sr.
So what to do? John Bigbie Jr. spent hours of his youth in the company of the two men, and he really wanted something to remind him of those times. The answer came in the form of some digital and artistic sleight of hand performed by Valdosta, Georgia, -based artist and graphic designer Mary Evelyn Tucker.
With an ominous grin, Herron looked down at me and said, "Hello there, lad."
Tempered by years of pipe smoking, George Herron's deep southern drawl sounded more like a growl than a greeting. But I gathered just enough courage to shake his hand.
As fellow knife maker Bobby Branton recalls, "Shaking hands with Mr. Herron was like trying to wrap your fingers around a leathery old catcher's mitt. His grip could swallow you whole."
So, I was relieved when the adults started their own conversation and quietly slipped away to explore the shop. It didn't take long for curiosity to get the best of me; I accidently gouged my thumb after picking up a curled steel shaving from one of Herron's drill trays. Like a stuck pig, I bled all over the floor, and panic ensued when the evidence of my exploits drew the attention of my father.
I rarely lied, but I was so scared of Herron I didn't know what else to do when Dad asked if I had been playing with the equipment. My unconvincing attempt at story-telling amused Herron greatly. He started chuckling and said, "Don't you worry about that, son. You can't hurt anything in here. Go run up to the house, and tell Miss Barbara to get you a Band-Aid."
But as I retraced my steps towards the door, something caught my eye. As a joke, one of Herron's apprentices had taped a picture of a pin-up girl on the wall a few days prior to our visit, and when I paused to take a closer look, Herron seized the moment.
"Now lad, don't be shy! You can stay in here and stare at them things all you want," he barked. The men made no attempt to contain their laughter as I ran out the door.
Their friendship began in 1975, after R.W. "Bob" Loveless conducted a knife-making demonstration in Tokyo, Japan, for the U.S. military members stationed overseas. Dad attended this event and introduced himself to both Loveless and his cohort, a Japanese man named Masada Fugita. From his personal collection of knives, Mr. Fugita displayed the work of a South Carolina craftsman whose style distinctively meshed the characteristics of the Randall Model 3 and the Loveless Drop Point. Herron was the name inscribed on the blade, and Dad wanted to learn more about his work.
That August, Herron did go into knife making full time, after selling eighty knives in less than two hours at the Knifemakers' Guild Show, and, by sheer coincidence, the Air Force transferred my parents to South Carolina several months later. After the move, Dad accepted George's offer and drove more than two hours to meet him. The pair instantly found common ground. Both shared a fondness for Lenard Brownell's design of the Ruger Number One single-shot rifle, and both grew-up in similar Southern settings.
Regarding their friendship, George's wife, Barbara Herron says, "I don't know how else to describe it, other [than] to say, those two spoke the same language. It seemed like they had known each other all their lives."
Herron was raised in the mountains of North Georgia, in a little town named Martin, where his grandfather worked as a blacksmith. I suspect that his career benefitted greatly from early exposure to that trade. Though he never talked about it much, the bravery he demonstrated as a tank solider during the Korean War earned him distinction among his peers. He received formal training as a machinist and worked for the Savannah River Site before venturing into the knife-making profession.
The Bigbie family came from Clay County, Georgia, one of the state's poorest areas. Dad's mother taught grammar school while he sought after the area's famed quail coveys as a youngster. After serving as a Navy signalman during World War II, he joined the Air Force to practice dentistry and represented the Service as a marksman in .45 ACP slow-fire matches all over the world.
Herron taught my father a great deal about the intricacies of knife making. Even with nothing to gain from a "green horn" knife enthusiast, George gave freely of himself, offering extensive lessons on the tools and the machining techniques involved with the trade. After Dad retired from the Air Force, my family settled in South Carolina, and visits to George Herron's home in nearby Springfield became a staple of my childhood. Though I hate to admit it now, I despised all of the adult discussions pertaining to blade-smithing, which seemed never ending. Like most kids, I cared little about the edge holding abilities of different steels or the proper settings for grinding belt motors, but I reckon that George Herron understood that.
Whenever their lengthy conversations took a turn for the worse, Herron would turn to Dad and say, "John, we need to get this boy out of here and let him shoot some, else he won't want to come back."
In a letter dated April 25, 1975, Herron responded to Dad's initial inquiry:
I am glad you saw one of my knives. Now you know just what kind of work I turn out. I strive to make a good knife better. It looks like my knives are getting around. I didn't know Masada Fugita of the Tokyo Firearms had one of mine. We met him and another man last year at the Kansas City Knife Show.
I understand they will be back this year. I am considering going full-time knife making. I hope to know by the last of the year. So you may not have to wait four years.
If you are anywhere near Kansas City in August 15, 16, or 17, I am sure you would enjoy yourself. The delivery date on these two knives will be forty-eight to forty-nine months, unless I go full time.
Give me a call when you get back in the states and can come by.
Using a Ted Borg-shot photo of Herron from the SCW archives and a family photo of John Bigbie, Tucker was able to create a mixed-media illustration of the two men standing together in Herron's workshop using the photos as a layout guide and working with graphite, drawing pencils and acrylic paint.
The result is the lead illustration for this article, seen above. You can see more of Mary Evelyn Tucker's work at https://www.mestudioart.com/.
And shoot we did. Herron maintained his own rifle range, complete with a bench rest, on a flat piece of land that ran the full-length of his pond. For pistol shooting, he constructed several sets of spinning metal targets. He even owned a Gatling gun - two Ruger .22 LR barreled actions joined side-by-side with ventilated barrel shrouds and a duel-lobed trigger crank. But formal training always preceded play. Through various trials, both Dad and Mr. George expected me to demonstrate proper bullet placement before letting loose on the Gatling.
Aside from knife making, Herron was also a knowledgeable gunsmith and owned several Ruger Number One rifles. He customized each with a heavy-set barrel intended to withstand the high-velocity ammunition that he hand-loaded. The .25-06 remained his caliber of choice for hunting deer, and he always placed his shots two inches behind the eye.
As his reputation grew, many critics began comparing Herron's fixed-blade knives to the likes of those made by Bo Randall and Bob Loveless, two of the all-time greats. But a problem existed. In the late 1970s, George hired one of South Carolina's most highly acclaimed outdoor photographers, Art Carter, to catalog his knives. For the front cover, Carter staged an opposing pair of Herron's Model 14 folders with rosewood handles. But according to Mrs. Herron, George was forced to stop making these original lock-blade folders because the handle materials frequently cracked and chipped near the edges. Like most knife makers, he used bounded pieces of precut steel to form the handle frame of his folding knives - leaving the attached ornate materials susceptible to damage.
In order to remedy this, Herron needed to create an "interframe" - a knife whose handle is milled from a single block of metal, and the edges of decorative matter such as wood, bone or pearl are encased in steel for protection. He constructed the frame with relative ease, but the heat generated from his inlaying process warped and discolored the natural handle materials. Few knife makers were skilled in this kind of fabrication at the time, and the ones that were rarely gave away their trade secrets. After months of failure, he became frustrated.
Help came from an unlikely source.
After their knife-making lessons, Dad usually visited with George and Barbara in their home. Typically, they swapped stories about their Georgia upbringings, compared the work of well-known gunsmiths, and discussed the advantages of various cartridge configurations. But on one particular evening, the discussion never diverted from knives. George couldn't get his mind off the interframe, and he spoke to Dad about the inlaying problems that prevented him from perfecting his new folder. Dad listened intently, but as Herron probably surmised, my father was in no position to offer any advice.
George knew that my father practiced dentistry, but my old man rarely discussed the full scope of his work: He specialized in the casting and construction of oral prosthetics such as bridges, dentures and crowns - devices interwoven with soft resin and metal.
A Generous Spirit
Despite the widespread acclaim and financial success that eventually came to him as a result of his knife-making prowess, George Herron remained true to his modest upbringing and traditional values his entire life. South Carolina Wildlife magazine enjoyed a special relationship with Herron that lasted over several decades. In 1994, when the magazine's editors wanted a special knife to help commemorate its 40th year in production, Herron obliged with a mastodon ivory-handled folder with "South Carolina Wildlife magazine 1954 - 94" engraved on the blade. The knife was sold by sealed-bid auction with the proceeds benefiting the continued production of the magazine.
Unbeknownst to George, Dad went straight to work after returning home from that visit, and carefully rendered his own design of an interframe folding knife. He also ordered a set of dental molding compounds used to protect resin from heat. When the package arrived, he drove straight to Springfield. Arriving unannounced, Dad walked into the shop and said, "George, I think I have an idea."
Herron reviewed Dad's drawings, and they began developing a steel pattern for a new interframe. Through painstaking trial and error, they devised a process to incorporate the molding compounds into the profiling machine template and eventually made some adjustments to the location of the hinge pin (blade locking mechanism).
"George had no patience when inexperienced knife makers told him how to do things," says Mrs. Herron. "If that happened, he would stop the lesson under the presumption of a break, lock-up the shop and not come back for the rest of the afternoon. But John was different. They listened to each other. Not everything they tried worked, but they could talk things out without becoming aggravated with one another. It was really neat to watch them work together."
Weeks later, Herron's first interframe was successfully inlayed with ivory. And when his new folding knives hit the market, all doubts were removed as to whether or not George Herron ranked among the true masters of hand-crafted cutlery.
Soon after I finished high school, I accompanied Dad to the annual BLADE Show, and Mr. and Mrs. Herron presented me with a very generous graduation gift, a fixed blade hunting knife with the serial number replaced by my graduation year. George called it the Medium Bigbie - the product of another project he worked on with Dad.
A few hours later, while sitting in the food court of the Atlanta Galleria, I watched George Herron shuffle down the stairs, followed by a gaggle of close friends and cohorts. It was the last time I ever saw him. He passed away, unexpectedly, in 2007. Throughout his life, many prominent outdoor magazines featured articles about Herron and the knives that he made, and, in 2003, the South Carolina Arts Commission presented him with the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, appropriately acknowledging him as the "Granddaddy of South Carolina Knifemakers."
As for Dad, he passed away in 2012 at the age of eighty-five. He never mentioned his role in the development of the interframe. But a few months after his death, carefully tucked away, I found a set of knife renderings alongside a beautiful ivory-inlayed folding knife. The serial number is marked "01." Imagine my surprise when Mrs. Herron told me the story.
Wherever they are now, I hope both Dad and George Herron know that the shy little boy - the one that hated all those knife discussions - will remember them both fondly for the rest of his life.