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2011 Sporting Category: Overall Winner

The 2011 award winners prove the best things are made in Dixie

Photo: Stacy Newgent

Overall Winner

Williams Knife Co.
Greenville, SC

When you first look at an Edisto Oyster Knife from Williams Knife Co., in Greenville, South Carolina, part of your brain recognizes the instrument instantly—the brawny handle, the stout blade, the simple functionality of its profile and shape. But another part is momentarily puzzled, as if to wonder: What kind of oyster knife is that, really?

The answer: the kind that could only come from the South.

Two years ago, Greenville native Chris Williams traded thirteen years as an investment banker for a small shop, a grinding wheel, and a fresh lease on life. Williams grew up watching his grandfather turn old band saw blades into gleaming knives, and he’d long “piddled around” with custom knife making.

“Then one day I realized that I wasn’t getting on another airplane or missing another T-ball game,” he says. “I was going to chase a dream.” That dream finds its purest expression in a seven-inch-long, custom-designed knife whose sole purpose is to free an oyster from its intractable shell.

And not just any oyster. Although it will crack open the most stubborn shellfish, Williams designed the Edisto knife specifically for the smallish, clumped-together oysters common to the briny waters of the Carolina Lowcountry. The pointed tip is perfect for prying them apart and digging into the hinge of the smaller specimens found in mid-South waters. It’s also ideal for the ever-so-lightly-steamed oysters that many Southerners prefer. “A lot of traditionalists down here like their oysters to give the steam pot just a quick look on the way to the table,” Williams says. To easily open those tight bivalves requires a sharper point than the one found on a run-of-the-mill knife with a blade shaped like a letter opener.

The knife steel flares as it meets the handle in an exaggerated sweep that is as much about function as pleasing lines. Most oyster knives are little more than miniature crowbars and rely on a guard of cheap steel or
plastic to protect hands. Williams’s knife solves the problem: As the tip is turned to pry
open the oyster, the generous blade width spreads the shells wide, away from fingers.

Of course, there’s more to this knife than what meets the umbo. Lush materials define the Edisto Oyster Knife, from a blade of gleaming stainless steel to highly polished handles of California sequoia, walnut, and maple, capped with protective layers of musk ox horn, sandbar stag, ivory, and abalone. But the homegrown heritage of the oyster knife tends to tone down Williams’s palette. “More of my Edisto Oyster Knives leave the shop with native wood handles than any of my other knife designs,” he says.

“Oyster season and all the fellowship that happens at an oyster roast is really serious business for a lot of Lowcountry South Carolina folks,” Williams says. “When the r months hit, people do everything they can to get their hands on an oyster.”

These days, more and more people are doing all they can to get their hands on an Edisto Oyster Knife, and word is traveling far beyond Dixie. Not long ago, a chef in Newcastle, Washington, ordered five Edisto Oyster Knives. He told Williams: “We take our oysters pretty seriously out here on the Pacific coast, too, and I know a good oyster knife when I see one.” As do we.

$250 each;  williamsknife.com

Bobby Denton Rifles
Morganton, NC

With its tapered-and-flared octagonal barrel, baroque and rococo relief carvings, and sterling silver stock inlays, this .54 caliber flintlock takes the heralded “long rifle” to artistic heights Daniel Boone couldn’t fathom. Guitar and gun maker Bobby Denton makes one rifle at a time, to custom specifications, at his small workshop in the North Carolina foothills. And although his rifles are built along the lines of the 1740s–1770s Lancaster-style muzzle loaders, Benton doesn’t build replicas. Each one is original, historically accurate, and built to shoot. And guaranteed to turn heads.

Price upon request; info@dentonguitarco.com

Merrimack Canoe Co.
Crossville, TN

Maintaining a balance between technology and tradition is tricky, but after fifty-seven years in the boat-building business, the folks at Merrimack Canoe Company have it down. Each canoe is built by hand in their Tennessee workshop. Craftsmen reinforce the carbon-fiber, Kevlar, and fiberglass hull with wooden ribs made of Tennessee-sourced cherry, and finish up with hand-laced seats and brass hardware. The result is a beautiful yet durable boat. “You’ll never have to buy another canoe,” owner Jim Watkins says. “It’s the kind of thing that will be in the family for generations.”

$3,105–$3,345; merrimackcanoes.com