Article on Rhett Stidham's Meadow's Edge Knife Shop

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Dec 26, 2002
Richmond, Virginia
Thought some of you would enjoy this.

"On the day the place opened, one customer bought $18,000 worth of knives before the glass display cases even had a chance to get smudged."


Cutting edge
Knives that are works of art draw collectors willing to spend thousands
Sunday, July 4, 2004


An admirer once dubbed Rhett Stidham the B.B. King of knife collectors, not because of Stidham's musical talent but because of his lifestyle as a road warrior.

Stidham played knife shows the way the tireless King played concerts.

One weekend he'd show up in Janesville, Wis., the next in Spokane, Wash. Stidham, accompanied by wife Janie, spent 200 days on the road each year, selling knives, buying knives and carving out a reputation as one of the shrewdest, smartest and most dedicated of collectors. Orlando was home, but not often.

That's all changed. The Stidhams have unpacked their bags, put down roots and found a place to display their million-dollar (or more) collection of vintage knives. Now, the world will come to them in their new shop in Meadows of Dan, a pretty little community in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Route 58 meets the Blue Ridge Parkway.

"I'm from the hills myself, so I like being in the hills," said Stidham, 63, who grew up in eastern Kentucky. "But I really like the people around here."

The Stidhams had become familiar with the folks in this part of Virginia by making an annual trek to the massive Labor

Day Flea Market & Gun Show in nearby Hillsville. So, when they started thinking about retiring and buying a farm, they decided to look here.

They didn't find a farm, but in Meadows of Dan they found a one-time general store that had been renovated recently with three floors and 4,400 square feet of showroom, storage and living space. The exquisite view of the surrounding countryside of barns and cows from the upstairs apartment, plus the cool summer breeze wafting through the open windows, were added bonuses. They could get everything, including themselves, under one roof. It was perfect.

In June, the Stidhams opened their place, Meadow's Edge Knife Shop & Antiques, a store with the feel of a museum. It is to a conventional knife shop what an establishment that sells vintage guitars in Nashville is to a mall music store. Same family, but distant cousins.

The display cases are filled with everything from the smallest antique pocketknives to blades that look more like swords. But these aren't knives that will ever slice a steak or clean a fish; they're works of art, pieces produced by master craftsmen, destined to hang on a wall or reside in a safe. The shop will attract the casually curious, but with prices of individual knives rising into the thousands of dollars - one particular knife, a Loveless, can be had for $200,000 - the customers who actually walk out with a knife and a receipt primarily will be serious collectors.

It's not only about what you see, but what you don't. What you see are the gleaming knives; what you don't see are the three decades of driving the back roads, frequenting flea markets, swinging deals, making contacts, doing research.

It's always possible, though, that even amid Stidham's extensive collection, a customer might not be able to find what he's looking for.

No problem, said Stidham.

"If I don't have it," said Stidham, "I know who to call to get it."

. . .

Stidham is a chemical engineer by training and a "junkaholic" by nature. He grew up roaming the hills of eastern Kentucky, collecting feathers ("There wasn't a rooster in the neighborhood that was safe," he laughed) and rocks. He thought he might like to be a geologist when he grew up. His only connection to knives, besides using them when he went fishing, was throwing them in the garage on rainy days.

He could just as easily have been a Virginian by birth. His father was a terrific baseball player in the coalfields in the 1920s around Norton - 150 miles west of Meadows of Dan - and picked up the nickname "Tater Patch" Stidham because of his tendency to hit balls into the nearby potato crop. A rival Kentucky coal company lured the elder Stidham across the border with a job as a foreman - and a third baseman.

As a young man, Rhett Stidham took a liking to attending flea markets and antiques sales. His brother-in-law was a knife collector, so Stidham began buying knives for him. After a couple of years, Stidham started collecting knives for himself.

In 1970, he lost his job as a chemical engineer and he had to sell his knives to pay the bills.

"The first knife I sold, I actually cried," Stidham said.

But he got over it.

"The more you sell, the more mercenary you get, I guess," he said.

In time, he hit the road, buying and selling knives at flea markets and shows, storing them in coffee cans and cigar boxes, sleeping in the back of his Oldsmobile Toronado. He got another job as a chemical engineer, but found after six months off the road, "I felt confined."

"I must have a little gypsy in me," he said.

Soon enough, he hit the road for good. He met Janie, a West Virginia native and sociologist, at a Christmas party in Ohio in 1979. They had a lot in common - same birth date (Jan. 17, three years apart), mothers with the same name (Naomi) - but Janie didn't share Rhett's passion for knives.

"But it sure didn't take long," she said.

Rhett Stidham is a good salesman.

Janie said her family "didn't think we could make money selling knives, but he made believers out of them pretty quick."

He became a familar face - and authoritative voice - on the knife circuit as collecting knives began to go mainstream, international and profitable.

"It's a whole'nother world," laughed Gary Randall, of the realm of knife collectors.

Randall is owner of Randall Knives of Orlando, Fla., and son of the late legendary knife craftsman Bo Randall. The firm still produces Randall Knives, known for their high quality, elegance, and history - the utility knives have accompanied U.S. soldiers into battle and American astronauts into orbit - at the rate of about 170 per week. They are in such demand that the firm is backlogged with orders until April 2008, said Randall.

The "collecting craze," as Gary Randall calls it, coincidentally coincides with Stidham's time in the trade.

"He saw a niche in the industry and capitalized on it," said Randall.

But it was the advent of more restrictive gun laws that really fueled the business of collecting.

"People switched from collecting one outdoor product to another," said Randall. Randall knows a lot about collecting because his knives are the "hottest collectible knives on the market," said Stidham, who founded the Randall Knife Society in 1989. He is not affiliated with Randall Knives but he has the Randalls' blessing.

The society has "helped present the history of Randall Knives," said Randall, and provided a forum for collectors. "It's very helpful to us," he said.

Stidham's shop has numerous Randall knives on display, including what Stidham believes to be the first Bo Randall ever made.

It's not for sale.

. . .

From the rocking porch of the Stidhams' shop, the stone bridge of the Blue Ridge Parkway is within easy view. Meadow's Edge, at the intersection of Squirrel Spur Road and Jeb Stuart Highway (Route 58), is across the street from Meadows of Dan Baptist Church and between Meadows Music, where handcrafted traditional stringed musical instruments are made, and Becky's Fried Pies.

The Stidhams didn't know how their new neighbors might react to the notion of a knife shop in town. The welcome has been warm.

"I love to have somebody who's going to bring fresh eyes into the community," said Nancy Galli, owner of Nancy's Homemade Fudge Kitchen, a factory and store just down the road. "He's bringing a store that fills a niche that we don't have. It's all very, very positive."

Some of those "fresh eyes" have included knife collectors from Italy and Japan, who stopped by to visit the Stidhams and shop before Rhett cut the ribbon at his grand opening with a 50th-anniversary commemorative Randall knife.

On the day the place opened, one customer bought $18,000 worth of knives before the glass display cases even had a chance to get smudged.

With such a high-dollar inventory, security is a concern. That's why the Stidhams have installed an elaborate security system, including floor-to-ceiling bars around an "inner sanctum" of the showroom where particularly valuable knives are kept.

But they also know this:

"Sixty percent of the knives we have are one of a kind," said Janie Stidham. "If someone took one of those knives and tried to sell it, they're busted."

Contact Bill Lohmann at (804) 649-6639 or [email protected]

Contact Bob Brown at (804) 649-6382 or [email protected]

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