Quiet craftsman builds things to last; so can we

A horseman’s knife (PHOTO: Shadley’s Knives)

Sad fact is, most of the expensive junk we buy won’t last any longer than us. My wallet is wearing out. I could use a new cell phone. In just the past few years, I’ve dumped an entertainment center, television and propane grill at the county waste station — each a valuable item in its day.

Besides micro-plastics and landfills, how will the cyborg anthropologists of the future know we were here? Well, I know someone doing his part.

With a pair of glasses halfway up his nose, navy blue work clothes and pocket full of pencils, Gene Shadley looks like someone who works at a hardware store. I know, because a few years ago he helped me locate something at The Home Depot in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He also worked at Cole’s Hardware, a place where he’s been hanging out since the late 1960s.

But behind the apron and name tag, I found a man who knew how to make just about anything. Today, he’s retired from the hardware business and working harder than ever in his shop. 

I follow him through a labyrinth of basement work stations while he points out curios and components. 

Here are the two-tined forks used at Fort Snelling before someone stole the silverware. 

In this drawer, we find a decorative license plate topper featuring an intricate Native American headdress from President Calvin Coolidge’s extended stay in northern Wisconsin in the summer of 1928. 

Over there, he displays 18th century muskets used for historical re-enactments. Shadley carried one on the same route used by Daniel Boone to cross the Cumberland Gap in 1775. 

Next, Gene hands me a tiny piece of metal. To me it looks like one of those leftover parts from store-bought furniture that I usually just throw out. But Gene explains it’s a carburetor float from a century-old tractor. That tractor is going to run, by goodness, thanks to Gene. 

Shadley made all these metal replicas from molds and tools, in many cases improving on the designs of factories that were torn down before he was born. 

“Anything I ever needed, I had to build,” said Shadley.

It started with a pistol. At 13, Shadley wanted a smaller gun to carry when checking traplines outside town. His dad said no, it would be a waste of money. So, Shadley found a family friend, Richard Riedl, willing to teach him how to bore out a barrel and machine the working components.

Reidl was tough, but generous with his time. Shadley said his mentor always answered the door holding a gun, though. Even after months of lessons. 

With a new pistol holstered on his belt, Shadley began improving upon his designs. More than 50 years later, his best-known works aren’t trinkets, but heirloom knives — some of which can fetch $25,000 or more. 

“The kind of knives I make look like the ones grandpa used to carry,” said Shadley. 

Grandpa’s knife was made in a factory at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, knives like these weren’t for show; rather, they were necessary implements of survival.

“Pretty much everyone uses a knife every day,” said Shadley. “It’s a tool. It can cut your steak, field dress a deer, gut a trout or butter your bread. I try, in my own simple way, to teach people that knives can be art.”

Gene Shadley

Shadley’s art may be found in the subtle colors of the molded handle, smooth folding action, and the supple curves that make everyday use easy and safe.

“I’m proud of what I do, but not prideful,” he said. “I like to stay in the background.”

Because every customer is different, so are each of Shadley’s knives. But if you’re only going to get one, he recommends the bird-and-trout fixed blade knife. 

“It can field dress any animal in North America,” he said.

Shadley’s work is well-known among cutlers. He served as President of the international Knifemaker’s Guild and his work is featured in respected knife-maker magazines like “Blade,” once adorning the cover. 

“I’d go from Mr. Shadley in a suit and tie to the orange apron, which caused some people to think my IQ dropped 50 points,” he said.

And that’s the point.

The people we see in everyday life might be crafters, artisans and makers of wonder. So could we. With enough attention to detail, we might replace more of our plastic junk with things that will last.

Things like Shadley’s knives, which he said will outlive us all.

Two-hundred years, he said. “If used properly.” 

We can only hope in 200 years that someone else develops the skills to make a new one. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, June 22, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Jan Merritt says

    Wonderful piece!

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.