The Jackknife

Today’s guest post was written J. Wayne Fears. He sent it to me after he watched my recent knife video.



No one owned a pocket knife back in the first half of the 1900’s; almost every man and boy carried a jackknife. It was a youngster’s rite of passage to be given his or, in some cases, her very own jackknife, usually a special Christmas present. It was special for several good reasons. First most families living around Tater Knob had very little money and the cost of a jackknife strained the budget. Many times a boy’s first knife was his father’s semi-worn out jackknife, when his father got a new one. Second the gift of a jackknife was a sign of reaching the age of responsibility, at least some responsibility. 

The gift usually came with a stern warning from the mother about cutting off fingers, sticking out eyes, not cutting on furniture, etc., etc. From the father came the stern talks about keeping the knife sharp – every man knew “a sharp knife was safer than a dull knife”. There would be lessons about how to properly use a whet stone. Then there was the talk about keeping the knife clean, not breaking the blade, not throwing it at trees, and how it was used to do chores both around the farmstead and when trapping, hunting and fishing.

Finally, there would be the warning from both parents that the jackknife was an expensive tool and it was the new owner’s responsibility to know where the knife was at all times and to not loose it!

The age of the kid when he or she got their first jackknife was early in those days as we grew up fast as far as farm chore responsibility and going trapping and hunting was concerned. Most farm kids got their first jackkinfe by the time they were in the fourth grade, long before city kids, mama’s boys and sissies in general got a knife. The jackknife to a farm kid was, in reality, his first working tool and it was to be treated with respect.

I will never forget the beginning of the fifth grade when we spent the first hot day of school getting to know a new teacher to the community, a Miss Taylor, fresh out of college. After calling the roll, pledging alligience to the flag and praying the Lord’s Prayer, Miss Taylor introduced herself and told us that she grew up as a farm girl. Then she asked for a show of hands as to any boys who had a jackknife in their pocket. Up went the hand of almost every boy in the class. Chipmunk, Punky and I almost stood up we were so proud to be “carrying.” Our teacher smiled and told us that she was glad to have so many “men” in her class that she could count on. We smiled back with pride.

Then as the hands went down, there was one hand still up in the air. It was Jenny. “Miss Taylor, I aint’t no boy or man,” Jenny proclaimed, “but I got a jackknife. I always have a jackknife.” Miss Taylor smiled and told us she too carried a jackknife. She and Jenny became close friends that day.

While the jackknife was a working tool, used for many things from cutting kindling splinters off “fat-wood” to start a fire in the cook stove on a cold morning to skinning a mink. It was also an instrument of entertainment in the popular game of mumbley-peg, a game we called “root-the-peg.” This game was played often during recess at school, during a lull in fishing or on our many camping trips. The game was to us what video games are to kids today. To be skilled at winning “root-the-peg” was much sought after, and I always had the suspension that Chipmunk and Jenny practiced in secret because they were so good at winning.

“Root-the-peg” was a game that involved doing at least 12 jackknife feats in which each, to be done successfully, ended up with the knife blade sticking in the ground so that the handle was over two fingers high. The first player took his knife through as many of the feats successfully as he could. Once he failed at a feat then a second player took a turn at using his jackknife to do as many feats successfully as possible, then a third and so on. Each round picked up with where the player stopped previously. The last player to successfully complete all 12 feats lost the game. 

At the end of the game, a 3- to 4-inch wooden peg, usually cut from a small tree branch, was sharpened and stuck into the ground. Each of the winners, using his jackknife as a hammer, got a predetermined number of strikes on the peg. Usually the peg was driven into the ground up to ground level. Then with loud chants of “root pig, root,” the looser had to pull the peg out of the ground with his teeth, no help from his hands. The “root pig, root” chant heard on the school playground guaranteed the looser a large audience.  

After recess, you could always spot the looser of “root-the-peg” as he would have a dirty ring around his mouth and grass in his teeth. It was more often than not Punky. In fact, he lost so many games; he had a semi-permanent dirty ring around his mouth.

Winning at “root-the-peg” was a very serious matter and most of us had many small scars on our fingers from concentrated efforts to accomplish the knife feats. It was cuts such as these that led to the demise, by over protective adults, of this great game and the “carrying” of jackknives by youngsters.

I hope you enjoyed J. Wayne’s post! To find out more about him and his writings visit his website here.


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  • Reply
    James E Herrington Sr.
    December 25, 2021 at 2:16 pm

    I came across this story after telling my wife about games my GGtandfather taught us kids more than 80 years ago. Mumbly Peg was our favorite. I remember vividly having to root the peg (pig). Even at my age, it seems like yesterday.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    February 2, 2021 at 10:32 pm

    My country-boy scar is a comma on the side of my left leg at the knee. I borrowed my granddad’s knife to cut something–I forget what. I asked him to open the blade for me. He complied and said, “Be careful, and do not run!” I walked a few steps, then took off running. Sure enough, I stuck myself pretty good, and bled a little, and wailed a lot as I headed back to the house. Grandpa hurt worse than I did, and I felt terrible for having disobeyed him. There was no thought of a doctor or a suture or two. Mom put mercurochrome on the wound and tied a clean cloth tightly around my leg. That was the end of that.

  • Reply
    Barbara Parker
    February 2, 2021 at 8:22 pm

    I really did enjoy todays feature. I’ve never owned a knife myself other than my many kitchen knives. I want to learn how to sharpen them. That takes know how and skill that I haven’t mastered yet. I remember when our son was given his first knife and what a special time it was. As a Mother I had lots of confidence in our son and he took good care of his knife and kept it as long as I can remember, he still probably has that first knife. He is almost as sentimental as I am and has a very good memory and ways to relate important life events. He is a Pastor now and I am very thankful for the good man he has grown in to.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    This story is interesting to both ladies and gentleman from mostly rural raisings. Thank to J. Wayne Fears for this walk back in time. One of my earlier memories is a young Dad and Mom’s cousin playing something similar on an old wooden floor. They would throw the knife and see who could get nearest a marker. They did quite well, and considering there were children playing all around they must have had total confidence in their accuracy.
    I remember a couple of us children practicing with a hatchet and a chop block, and if one whirled the hatchet just right the blade would hit right into the block. Years later I was very slightly impressive at a fair doing the same challenge. There were no helicopter parents back then, and every child I ever actually knew survived well into the teens. Some were not as fortunate once they became teen and were swimming in the New River or getting a driver’s license. It is so different now. It all changed, and experts are still trying to put their finger on why.

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    February 2, 2021 at 4:25 pm

    My dad gave me my first pocket knife when I was 9 years old and yes I have scars, but scars have better stories behind them than tattoos.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    February 2, 2021 at 4:10 pm

    What is the difference in a jackknife and a pocketknife? I know a pocketknife isn’t always a jackknife but isn’t a jackknife always a pocketknife?

    I didn’t carry a knife when I was young for fear that I would lose (not loose) it. Most of my pants were hand me downs and if there were no holes in the pockets before I put a knife in it, one would soon open up. When I got older and could afford new pants I carried a knife all the time.
    I bought a brand new knife about 50 years ago that had kissing cranes on it. I carried it to work one day and dropped it down through a conveyor system that went down through three floors. I never found it!

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    February 2, 2021 at 1:34 pm

    Every kid in the neighborhood played mumbley-peg. For a girl I was quite good at it. We could play for hours.

  • Reply
    Betty Brantley
    February 2, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    I enjoyed the reading! A child could certainly not take the knife or play that game at school these days! My brother collects knives. Where might I buy an old jackknife? Thank you for sharing your story! I loved it!

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    February 2, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I have played mumbley peg a few times but it was never a common thing when I was growing up. In fact, to me a pocketknife was always ‘just there’. It was as much a part of the daily life as my pants – still is. So there aren’t any stand out memories associated. I cut myself but never anything but minor cuts. I probably got the most cuts by testing the edge when sharpening with the ball of my thumb.

    I still say country life just requires children to learn responsibility early. Being a contributor to the family welfare from an early age by doing some of those many daily chores adds values that include responsibility and self-respect.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    February 2, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Is that the source of the expression “Root, pig, or die!” which I have heard and used all my life
    as in: “You better root, pig, or die if you think you can finish that in an hour.”

  • Reply
    Rick Shepherd
    February 2, 2021 at 9:04 am

    As boys living on the Ohio River in southwestern Indiana, we played a more dangerous game of Mumbley-peg…..Two boys squared off facing each other standing about five feet apart…..Using only one knife between the two of them the object was for one boy to throw and stick the knife as close as he dared beside the foot of the other boy…..It was a short lived game of dare……One day I squared off against a boy we all knew who claimed he could throw a knife better than any of us and wanted to play…..My first clue that something was about to go real bad was that he had never thrown against any of us……I was the daring type in those days…..Come to think of it, I don’t think much has changed in the sixty four years since that day when I was ten years old…..Any way, I went first and stuck the knife about two inches from his foot…..He wasn’t impressed and claimed he could do better than that…..He picked up the knife grabbing it by the blade and threw it hard….Only it didn’t go down, it went straight at me…..My quick reflexes were the only thing that saved me from having that knife stuck in my chest…..I raised my arm in a blocking fashion quicker than the knife was flying and it stuck in my outside forearm….I still carry the scar of that incident to this day….A few things happened next…..None of us boys ever played Mumbley-peg with him again, my parents barred me from carrying a Jack knife for a looong time and later that boy threw a piece of a brick and hit my best friend in the back of the head as he walked down the street beside me…..I’m pretty sure he did that meaning to hit me because of the beating I had given him after the knife incident but as usual his aim wasn’t so good.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 2, 2021 at 8:33 am

    That’s a wonderful story well told. Childhood was so different in my time and J Wayne’s time. Recess would be nothing now like it was then.
    I was always the girl that found what the boys were doing so much more interesting than what the girls were doing.
    Thanks for the memory!

  • Reply
    Margie Goldstein
    February 2, 2021 at 8:19 am

    After reading about the jackknife and games where the loser got a mouth of tasty sod, I had to laugh thinking about whining little punks these days who get their “feelers” hurt over ANY and EVERY thing! I don’t know how they survive school. Anyway, a jack knife is a necessity. The V A tells me I cannot being one into their horse pistol ( hospital) to which I must reply “ go suck eggs!” My knife goes with me EVERYWHERE except when a scanner is used to crush my rights. There’s a special young man in my life I helped raise and I think the time for his first brand new jack knife has come. He’s a fine and responsible young man. As his adopted auntie, knife time has come. I’ve used my jack knife for all types of arising issues and glad I had it!

  • Reply
    Roger Greene
    February 2, 2021 at 8:03 am

    “most of us had many small scars on our fingers”

    A country boy scar! Usually found on the left index finger of a right handed person. A comma or ‘J’ shaped scar between the first and second knuckle.

    Like the VSULR (vaccination scar upper left arm) it denotes a person who was a child of the early to mid 20th century in the U.S. (A circular scar about the size of a nickle on the upper left arm from the early polio vaccination efforts.)

    These scars are useful at times in helping to narrow down the idenity of unknown found bodies. The ‘country boy scar’ usually led us to look at persons raised in the south east, rural areas of the country.

    I am a possesor of both, along with various other scars attained with being blessed with 68 years of an interesting life.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2021 at 6:44 am

    Entertaining story. I don’t remember this game. We did play ” MUMBLING-PEG” when adults weren’t present. I don’t think the majority of the children of today have the same values and maturity to carry anything but their smartphones.

  • Reply
    Leon Pantenburg
    February 2, 2021 at 6:44 am

    Loved the story! I grew up in Iowa on a farm, and got my first pocket knife when I was young. We all had knives at school, and it never occurred to us to use them as weapons.

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