Ruana Knives, 80-plus years crafting tools for the outdoors

    In 1938, in a small shop in Bonner, Rudy Ruana began making knives for hunters and other outdoorsmen. The demand grew. Today the company is into its third generation of knife making. In this week's Montana Moment we meet the family whose roots in this little community stretch worldwide, where a Ruana Knife is considered a treasured tool and a collector's keepsake.

    A small, family owned knife making company in Bonner has just completed its 80th year in business.

    Rudy Ruana began making knives for area outdoorsmen here in 1938.

    Rudy's son-in-law, Vic Hangas joined Rudy making knives in the shop on West Riverside and Third in the 1960's.

    "He and I got along good," said Vic. "I worked for him for 20 years and I've actually worked in that shop for 55 years."

    Today Vic's sons and Rudy's grandsons Mike and Mark Hangas continue the legacy.

    "I take raw steel and turn it into a knife," laughed Mark.

    " Mark doesn't say a whole lot," said his brother Mike. " I think it's kind of common for Finnlanders, which we both are. I do more of the business stuff. Mark is very artistic. He's got that gene from Dad-the artistic craftsman."

    "I just wanted to make a living," said Vic. " But I always liked working with my hands. I like to paint and do anything with my hands so it was very satisfactory for me."

    In his home hang several of his art pieces, beautiful pictures of wildlife and the natural environment.

    The Hangas family can trace their knife making history to an old black and white photograph hanging in the shop's office.

    Rudy Ruana began making knives when he was in the Army.

    "This is a picture of my Grandpa when he was in the Cavalry," said Mike, "dated July 4th, 1922. He was a farrier."

    Ruana was a farmer, mechanic and welder too.

    He and his young family left their farm in North Dakota in the 1930's.

    They were on their way to Seattle when their rig broke down.

    " He had to fix it," said Mark. " So he asked if he could borrow a mechanic's welding equipment and the guy said you weld pretty good. You want a job?"

    Rudy's daughter Ilona, who later married Vic Hangas, was only two-months old.

    "And my Dad said yes" to the job, said Ilona. " All he had was $40 in his pocket when he left North Dakota. So that's why we're here."

    The Finnish Ruanas would have a lot in common with this little community.

    "They call it West Riverside," said Mark. "But it used to be called Finntown. The Finn pronunciation would probably be ROO-uh-nah. But not many people speak Finn around here anymore."

    To make more money for his family Rudy started making hunting knives on the side.

    The demand grew.

    "Hunters mainly found they performed well," said Mark.

    "He made a tool," said Mike. "That was the primary focus."

    In those early years, to do his work, Rudy had to take the motor off his wife Helmi's washing machine.

    " Then when Mother needed to do laundry he'd bring it back in," said Ilona, "and hook it up to the washing machine."

    In the 1940's steel was going to the war effort.

    But the little shop didn't stop production.

    " Grandpa found that Studebaker leaf springs made great knife blades," said Mike.

    He showed us one of those old knives.

    " The little stamp in the knife handle means the blade is from a Studebaker leaf spring," he said. "It would have been made sometime from 1944 to 1962."

    A knife with a Ruana stamp is a tool and a collector's item.

    Mike picked up a Bowie knife with an 'M' stamp. It's a mark put on knives made from 1962 to 1983.

    He also showed us a rare custom made hatchet.

    They are tools from 80-plus years of family craftsmanship.

    "This is our 80th Anniversary Edition Ax," he said. "It has never been made prior to 2018."

    In the shop Mike retrieved an elk antler from a large pile of antlers and began to saw it.

    "I'm just breaking it down," he said. "It will eventually be made into handles."

    The shop has always used elk antlers as raw material.

    " It's just the natural look and appeal," said Mark. " Elk antlers are part of the hunting tradition."

    Like his sons, Vic has always loved hunting and fishing.

    Here in Bonner and Milltown the family's roots run deep.

    Vic, who is also of Finnish heritage, nodded to his wife and high school sweetheart Ilona.

    "Being with her all these years is great," he said. " And I'm proud of our sons' work ethic. Finns are known for their work ethic and it's been passed onto them."

    Leafing through Knife Magazine, Mike showed us a story where Ruana Knives and the family are prominently featured.

    On the walls of the reception area are pictures of scores of celebrities who own Ruana knives.

    "Here's Goose Gossage, the famous New York Yankees pitcher," said Mike. "Here's Bob Boone, Harry Caray and Howie Long. My brother made a knife for him in the 80's."

    He pointed to one of his personal favorites, a framed and autographed picture of Jack Nicklaus.

    "That's really neat to me," he said. "I love to golf. Jack Nicklaus was my idol growing up."

    But the family still makes most of their knives for ordinary people.

    They know the practical needs of outdoorsmen and women.

    "We grew up here," said Mark. "We played in the river and hunted and fished around here."

    Since knife production began here more than 80-years ago the younger knife makers have made a few changes-modernized their methods.

    But a Ruana knife is still a Ruana knife.

    "We put a little more time into finishing them up and making them look pretty," said Mark. "But other than that they're basically the same."

    Looking around the old shop Mike laughed.

    "Things haven't changed," he said. "I think some of the dust is still here from when my Grandpa opened up."

    Mike said when was really young he was scared he would catch fire from all the sparks flying around.

    "Now years later," he said, "I'm wearing those sparks on my shirt."

    He wears them proudly, here in the little community where his Grandpa's rig broke down to stay so many years ago.

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