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Jack Knife Ben, a legend I never heard

I had never heard of this man and find it amazing that with as many knives as he sold there are only a few around.  That must mean they were used, not collected.  If he could only see them now!

It isn't a knife; instead it is a piece of knife lore. A March 1927 issue of The American Magazine had a great article
about Jack Knife Ben himself, written by a journalist named Neil M. Clark.

Jack Knife Ben was really named Benjamin W. Chon.
In 1887, when he was twenty-four years old, Ben Chon "reached Chicago by box car busted and broke. It was late fall and cold." His most recent job had been as an actor in a traveling theater company playing Uncle Tom's Cabin." He had played "nearly every role but the bloodhound," but the company had not earned enough money to pay the actors' salaries. In Chicago Ben Chon did odd jobs until he had saved eight dollars. Then he went to visit the giant
Union Stock Yards, then the most notable attraction in the Windy City.

"I was amazed," said Ben, "at the number of farmers, stock-raisers, cowboys, and cattlemen who came there from all over. The thought occurred to me that every one of those men needed a first class jack knife. I asked myself why they shouldn't buy knives of me, and get good ones!
The next morning I was on the job. My store was a barrel, my display case a cigar box, and my entire stock a few dozen knives I had been able to pick up at a bargain with my eight dollars. I offered the knives for sale at a quarter apiece. "At first it was pretty tough, sticking to it through cold, rain, snow, sleet, and sun. But people got to know me. I had a line of talk, guaranteed my knives, and took care to sell good knives, built the way farmers wanted them. Customers at my barrel store soon included all sorts and classes, from laborers to millionaire packers and commission men. "But I was only a peddler. The policeman on the beat did not understand my ambitions and hated peddlers -- me especially. Day after day he'd order me away; and I'd come back, as sure as the next sun rose. ...

"It was about eight years [1895] before I finally got my first little shop. Mr. John Ashby was then Vice President of the Stock Yards Company. That company owned the real estate, and leased it out, and they wouldn't let me rent any
space, even after I could afford it. But Mr. Ashby noticed I was persistent, and he had a little shack put up for me.
It was just about big enough to turn around in; but I settled in it, and made money faster than ever!
"Later on the elevated lines were built and the steam railroad was abandoned. I rented the old station, and fitted it up as a store. We're still in it."

In 1927, Jack Knife Ben's store was doing several hundred thousand dollars a year in business. Besides the old standby, pocketknives, it also sold razors, diamonds, jewelry, clothing and men's furnishings, rain coats, leather goods, and optical instruments. As Ben said, "We aren't grand, like some of the stores downtown. But that's real mahogany in those showcases; when a jeweler wants to close out and quit, I can give him cash for his stock -- twenty, thirty, fifty thousand dollars if need be -- and get bargains for my customers.
"One of my sons now manages one side of the store, and another has charge of the other side, but I still prefer to stand out in front with my tray of knives, and sell them to all comers in all weathers. Seldom a day goes by when I sell less than fifty knives. I have sold as many as seven and eight hundred in a single day.
"I pride myself on knowing more farmers than anybody else in the country. ... I have done business with a lot of famous people, too. Everybody who comes to Chicago comes to the Stock Yards, and they pass my place of business. The Prince of Wales has one of my knives. President Harding had one, and President Coolidge has one." Benjamin Chon, the little man in the gray business suit and the blue yachting cap, and with the carnival pitchman's mesmerizing voice, was for more than half a century almost as much of a Chicago institution as the Stock Yards themselves. "Quality, sir?" he often said. "Just read that, if you please; it says 'Jack Knife Ben' on the blade, doesn't it? That never goes on a knife unless I stand behind it." * * *
Mr. John E. Thompson of Illinois read my write-up on Jack Knife Ben Chon of Chicago in the November installment of
this column, and it brought back some fond memories for him. He writes, "I enjoyed this issue, my first, especially the piece on Jack Knife Ben. I have done business with Ben, or with one of his sons -- a pocketknife or two, but mostly
tools of the stockman's trade, like canes and sorting poles. My dad bought my mother's engagement ring from Ben about 1919." * * * also see:
ATLANTIC MONTHLY, APRIL 1998 pp 71-87 for a biography of Ben Chon's youngest son,
William Shawn (1907-1992), long time editor of the New Yorker Magazine.
One of the sources for this article was the book: Men Meat & Miracles, 1952, by Bertram Fowler. According to this story, Ben Chon was born in Canada in 1863. His wife, Anna Bransky, was born in Manchester, England, and her family emigrated to Detroit, where they met.

Ben Chon retired in 1928, leaving his son Harold in charge of the business. Jack Knife Ben died in 1952.

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Comment by Sue OldsWidow on February 21, 2013 at 11:46

Have never heard of this Man, what a great story,a great piece of knifing history.... Jan.....Thanks for sharing....

Comment by Jan Carter on February 20, 2013 at 4:54

Did you all know about this guy?

In Memoriam
Comment by Robert Burris on February 19, 2013 at 19:23

Thanks, Miss Jan.

Comment by Lee Smith on February 18, 2013 at 21:02

I like it.

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