Keeping Sharp: A Legacy of Love

Sparks fly, knives are sharpened

This article won second place at the OWFI Conference, May 2011

Sharpening stone with man working on knife.

Sparks fly in 39-year-old Johnny Harper’s workshop while he deftly guides a lawn mower blade along a grinding wheel. Standing on a concrete block Harper wears safety glasses and welding gloves to do the precise work. He is a small, shy man with an engaging smile.

Harper’s Sharpening Service in Gillis, Louisiana is a busy place. The workshop sits behind the sixty-year-old home once belonging to Harper’s grandparents. He and his wife, Melanie, share the home. Rose bushes and azaleas add blasts of color to the side of the building.

Antique tools dominate spaces between the studs along the unfinished walls. A “new” manual grinding wheel dated 1883 sits on the floor. It is a gift from a customer who found it in his barn. Harper displays the wheel and explains how sharpeners in the 19th century would drive around the countryside offering to sharpen tools for a small fee or a meal. Except for a band-saw and belt sander all of the tools Harper uses on a daily basis belonged to his grandfather.

A workbench covered in fine metal shavings and dust sits along one wall, a black rotary dial telephone complete with a snake like coiling cord, dominates one corner of the bench. Two antique switchboard operator chairs are available if Harper has an opportunity to sit down. The telephone and chairs are testimony to the many years Harper’s grandfather worked for Bell South.

The sharpening business began as a hobby by Harper’s grandfather. Johnny Harper shares early memories of “watching PaPa sharpen tools and socialize with his customers and friends. PaPa could talk a squirrel out of a tree.” It is clear that he admired, respected, and emulated his beloved grandfather. “PaPa was a true man, full of love and pride for his family. He taught me to live a Christian life.” Harper explains with tears in his eyes. He misses his grandfather who died in November, 1999.

Harper was seven years old the first time he sharpened anything in the workshop. He had a chain saw specifically altered for his size. He was helping his grandfather and others clear some trees and brush. The blade on his saw quickly dulled. Young Johnny took the saw to his grandfather and asked for a new chain. He remembers his grandfather saying “if you’re old enough to use a chain saw you’re old enough to sharpen the chain.” He discovered he had the knack to restore dull tools. On the job training, hard work, and frustration shaped the man Harper is today.

Chain saw blades, hand saws, lawn mower blades, Skil-Saw blades, kitchen knives, scissors, swords, and multitudes of other items are routinely restored by Harper and his wife.

The machines have to be adjusted for angles, bevels, and spacing. Having a mathematical mind is helpful he admits. Asked what is the most difficult thing to sharpen received a quick reply. “Hand saws because of the need for precision since the teeth of the saw are so closely spaced. Sharpening hand saws was the last thing PaPa taught me.”

The most unusual thing Harper was asked to sharpen was an inexpensive manual can opener from a man’s tackle box. After it was sharpened to “like new” the man’s wife took the can opener for her kitchen leaving her dull one in his tackle box.”

Following Hurricane Rita, Harper and Melanie worked sixteen-hour days for more than a month sharpening endless chain saw blades. Just after the hurricane they had no generator and had to turn people away. A UPS driver came by to have something sharpened. He was turned away. Less than two hours later the same man returned with a generator donated from a local church. During that time of crisis Harper didn’t charge to sharpen tools. “I just couldn’t, everyone was hurting so bad.” Many customers left donations.

Grinding wheel and knife sharpener
Knife sharpener and hand with blade on wooden table, closeup

Johnny and Melanie Harper work together. She is a teacher at Gillis. They love God and live a humble Christian life.

Harper’s Sharpening Service has a great deal of business. Their customers come via word of mouth.  His customers are loyal because of who he is, not just for his top-notch work. “I can sharpen anything but a man’s mind,” says Harper. This author thinks he can probably sharpen a man’s mind as well. His story is more than that of a man with a unique skill. It is one of legacy and love.

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