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James Buel “The Arkansas Knifesmith” Lile is one of the most accomplished and famous custom knife makers in American history. He carved his first fixed-blade knife from wood at the age of eight, and by age eleven, he was grinding old files into fixed-blade knives.
James Lile was born on August 22, 1933, in Russellville (Pope County) to Leona and Buel Lile. His father was a coal miner who later worked for Arkla after the mines closed, and his mother was a housewife who also worked twenty years at the Local International Shoe factory.
In 1952, at the age of nineteen, Lile met and worked for Winthrop Rockefeller welding bull pens being built at the Mountain Top Ranch on Petit Jean Mountain. Lile subsequently entered Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville in the fall of 1952. In February 1955, Lile married Marilyn Mathis; they had no children. He attended Arkansas Polytechnic College for three years and studied for one year at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway (Faulkner County), and though he never earned a degree, he taught at Pottsville High School from 1956 to 1959 on a ninety-hour teaching certificate, as Arkansas had a great shortage of teachers. He taught science and math, and was the junior girls’ basketball coach.
Lile was at Fort Belvier, Virginia, for four months in the mid-1950s while in the military, studying asphalt and concrete construction; he finished first in his class in this field. From 1959 to 1969, he owned and operated the Jimmy Lile Construction Co. and owned and helped operate a sporting goods store, Jimmy Lile Sporty. In the winter, he also worked for the U.S. Forest Service in northwest Arkansas at Mountainburg (Crawford County), planting six million pine trees over two winters. He owned the Case Equipment business, mostly selling small Case bulldozers and backhoes. He also owned the Jimmy Lile Ready Mix Co. with six ready mix trucks and five employees; he won a contract to furnish the concrete for much of the Dardanelle Lock and Dam on the Arkansas River.
In 1970, Lile decided to make knife making his full-time career. His shop and showroom were located on Scenic Highway 7 in Russellville. Lile designed and made the First Blood and Rambo, The Mission knives that were used by Sylvester Stallone in the famous Rambo film series. Lile’s Rambo knives have been credited by many for putting American custom knife making on the map. Lile also designed and made several bowie knives that were presented to Governor Bill Clinton and Presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.
Lile was elected president of the Knifemakers Guild in 1980, serving through 1982. He was inducted into the Cutlery Hall of Fame in August 1991 and was a member of various gun and arms organizations. His Patented Lile Lock folding hunting knife is on permanent display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Lile had been contacted by patent attorney Jerome Grosse of St. Louis, Missouri, to provide the knife for display in 1979.
Lile died at home in Russellville on May 5, 1991. He is buried in Russellville.
For additional information:The Jimmy Lile Website. http://www.jimmylile.com/. (accessed April 11, 2007).
Voyles, J. Bruce. “Jimmy Lile.” Blade Magazine, December 1991.
Jack LucarelliToluca Lake, California
Last Updated 2/17/2010
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