Getting the edge on Asia
Manufacturing in America isn’t dead, in John Cammenga Sr.’s opinion.
“Maybe just wounded,” he adds.
One year ago, Cammenga, an experienced manufacturer, acquired the former building and equipment of Reid Tool Design at 130 Mason Drive in Coopersville at a bank foreclosure.
Today, White River Knife & Tool makes knives under its own brand, plus many more blades for major knife brands. It also produces a blade tool used to remove automobile windshields at repair shops.
“We grind thousands of blades every month,” said Cammenga, for knives in three categories: hunting, tactical and survival. Tactical knives are mainly designed for use by military and law enforcement.
“We actually make more knives for other knife makers than we do for our own brand,” he said, and that started just a year ago when White River moved into the former Reid facility. Reid had been “dabbling” in knife blade production for other manufacturers for about a decade, he said, which is why it had such specialized equipment automated and specifically designed for knife blade grinding.
“The few other companies in the U.S. that have this equipment don’t share their capacity. We do. So we’ve filled a niche for other high-end knife makers that don’t have enough volume to purchase this industry-specific equipment,” he said.
Cammenga, 50, has experience in specialized manufacturing going back to the early 1990s, when he joined a company his father had founded in Holland in 1992. Cammenga Corp. made tritium lensatic compasses for the U.S. military and America’s military allies, as well as the hunting and outdoor recreation markets.
“We were the exclusive supplier to the military for that compass,” he said. Tritium is an elemental radioactive gas used in the compass to make it luminescent for use at night by the infantry.
The younger Cammenga founded White River Corp. in 2004, named for the White River in southeast Oceana County, where he and his wife, Susan, live on 80 semi-wilderness acres far from the city.
His first objective, after White River Corp. existed on paper, was to find some sort of new business opportunity to operate under that name. In 2005, the Cammenga family sold the compass manufacturing business and the younger Cammenga “went into semi-retirement for a few years.”
“At my age, one can only fish so long,” he joked. During that time he was searching for an opportunity to start a new family business.
“We were looking for an opportunity that we could feel passionate about and nothing really materialized,” he said, until the assets of Reid Tool Design became available.
The chance to make knives had great appeal to Cammenga because his 20 years in the compass manufacturing business had left him with extensive business contacts in the world of hunting and outdoor sports.
The fact that it is also a family-owned and operated business is another strength; many knife buyers and collectors hold traditional American values, so the family orientation has great appeal to them, according to Cammenga.
“Our entire family hits all the major trade shows,” he said. Working with him and Susan full time are sons John, Matthew and Steve, who range in age from 23 to 30.
It was during the recent Great Recession that the idea for a new family business grew stronger.
“I’m of the mindset that, even in tough times, some businesses will prosper and grow. With the right people pulling in the same direction, there’s no reason we couldn’t be one of those businesses that does grow,” he said. “So I brought my entire family in, to be the right people.”
Knife manufacturing, like so many other industrial processes, had gone overseas to a major extent over the past two decades, according to Cammenga. Now, the manufacture of knives “is coming back to the United States.”
“A lot of the big names are starting to manufacture knives now” in this country, he added.
Cammenga was tempted to name one of those “big names” but thought that might be revealing a little too much to the competition. “We just got a very large contract from a very big name,” he said, with pride.
Japan, Taiwan and China are the largest sources of knives and cutlery on the world market today, but Cammenga said the American consumers of tactical and hunting knives are increasing their demands for knives made wholly in the United States.
Knives made by White River involve a variety of steels, with certain high-end products made from state-of-the-art CPM powdered metals, including S30V, a high-grade stainless. For its classic hunting knives, White River uses a traditional 52100 tool steel.
“We do purchase all of our steels from the United States,” he added.
Michigan has had a number of celebrated hunting knife makers over the years, including Marble’s from the U.P., plus Jim Behring, Mike Sakmar, Hess and Rose Cutlery.
One of the most famous was Bill Scagel, described in a New York Times article in March as a “reclusive blacksmith” who lived “off the grid in the woods” near Fruitport in West Michigan. He made luxurious hunting knives by hand, which were sold by some of the biggest names in American sporting goods retail. The Scagel Knives website states that collectors now pay $20,000 and up for a hand-made Scagel original.
Cammenga doesn’t pine for that kind of fame; he just wants a successful family business, making hunting and tactical knives that Americans want and enjoy.
“My wife and I are very excited about this business and these times we live in, and we are very grateful to be working with our own sons. It makes every day something we look forward to. It’s not work to us,” he said.