For Catherine Shook, it really all began when she was 12 years old.
“Dad gave me my first pocket knife,” she said, “I thought, ‘this is cool, I want to figure out how to make this stuff.’” Youthful curiosity grew and expanded until now, at the age of 21, she is a full-fledged blacksmith, a traditional trade that has, historically, been the domain of husky, broad-shouldered men. Needless to say, Catherine does not check off any of those boxes.
Homeschooled right through high school, she found that she was very tactile when she naturally took to knitting and crocheting. But at the age of 17, she joined the Junior Apprentice program at Exchange Place, randomly chose blacksmithing as an elective, and has been hooked ever since. So much so that, when the living history farm holds its annual Fall Folk Arts Festival on Saturday and Sunday, September 23 and 24, you will find Catherine in the blacksmith shop, as she has been since the spring of 2015, demonstrating what the “smithy” would have done on the Preston farmstead in the 1840s and 1850s.
Of course, practice makes perfect and Exchange Place generally only fires up its forge four times a year, so she has been proactive in learning the craft. In addition to working with and learning from Graysburg Forge’s Will Vogt out at Exchange Place, she attended a blacksmithing class at the renowned John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, which proved to be extremely intense, but was also enormously educational and, quite simply, “very cool.” And perhaps most importantly, she has become a regular at Bristol Forge, which meets over at Rocky Mount every month. By watching and listening to the more experienced blacksmiths there, she has been able, she believes, to improve her skills to where she feels she is now producing better-quality iron works. Quality is very important to Catherine, but there is also something else that motivates her. There are, she says, other female blacksmiths around but they seem to be more interested in making decorative items, “the long, skinny, elegant things.” That is definitely not her — give her something practical every time. “It can look pretty,” she says emphatically, “but it has to be useful…if it can’t be used, what’s the point?”
But can a 19th century skill still be relevant in the 21st century? Catherine thinks so. She would like to utilize the small business management degree she earned from Northeast State Community College this past December, build her own forge, and produce her own works, things such as knives, arrowheads, hooks and hook racks, door handles and latches – practical and useful. She thinks she could sell things online, or out at Exchange Place during festivals, or even on a commission basis. And she also sees a need to perpetuate blacksmithing. “It can be a dying art if we let it,” she says but, getting emotional, she goes on to emphasize “nothing should die.”
To that end, she may be open to teaching blacksmithing skills. When working the forge at Exchange Place, she has had a great deal of interaction with curious, wide-eyed youngsters, which she finds to be “such fun.” And the Mountain Empire is still a perfect area in which to learn these skills, since we still have the coal, and we have such a wealth of historic treasures like the Netherland Inn, Rocky Mount, the Thomas Amis Historic Site and of course Exchange Place. She is proud to be an alumnus of the Junior Apprentice program, which she praised for getting people involved in local history, and in raising a whole new generation of volunteers who, like her, will not let our history die.
Catherine Shook will be part of the 45th edition of Exchange Place’s Fall Folk Arts Festival. It will be held on Saturday, September 23, from 10 am until 5 pm, and Sunday, September 24, from noon until 5 pm. The weekend will be filled with dozens of artisans displaying their hand-crafted items, in addition to plants, seasonal produce, music and food. Admission is $3 for those over the age of 12; there is no charge for anyone under 12. All proceeds benefit the animals who live year-round at Exchange Place, as well as the continued restoration and preservation of the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Exchange Place is a living history farm whose mission is to preserve and interpret the heritage of mid-nineteenth century farm life in Northeast Tennessee. Exchange Place is a non-profit organization maintained and operated entirely by volunteers and is supported by donations, fundraisers, memberships and grants.