Preview of James Black Bowie Heritage Festival presented to Lions
Above: Master Bladesmith J.R. Cook shows off a 28-inch knife at Monday's meeting of the Hope Lions Club.

Monday’s Lions Club program was a preview of the James Black’s Bowie Heritage Festival, coming to Washington State Park Saturday April 20th.  Chairwoman of the festival, Dolly Henley, who is also running for Arkansas representative in District 88, which includes all of Hempstead County and parts of Howard and Miller, described the events of the day and introduced Master Bladesmith J.R. Cook who will be attending the festival as an instructor. 

Henley first briefed the assembled on the festival’s headliners. Melissa Miller, a survivalist, knife aficionado and winner of three Naked and Afraid challenges, including a 10-day, a 21-day and an XL group challenge. Jason Knight will also be coming. About him, Henley said, “Jason is a master bladesmith out of eastern Tennessee, coming to us from several hundred miles away, is nationally known, and we're really excited to have Jason with us this year.” Knight also was a fill-in judge in seasons three and four of the History Channel’s Forged in Fire

Next, for the third time, Doug Marcaida, a fixture on Forged in Fire as a judge, will be on hand. Mecaida, said Henley, “has grown to love our community, our [James Black] bladesmith school and all the knifemakers in our community.” 

Henley also described some of the events. One which starts at 10:00 a.m. is the Quick Challenge, in which a bladesmith hands a student of the James Black Bladesmith School a piece of metal, and that student turns it into a knife in the time they are limited to. At 5:00 p.m., any participant who wishes can attempt to make a knife from a hunk of metal, using the forges available. 

Also, knife and other historical objects expert Mark Zalesky will come from Tennessee to the festival to evaluate knives or other objects. “If you have a collectible, whether it be a knife, or a bow or whatever you might have at home that you think may be worth something, Mark is a historian, and he's qualified to tell you a little history of that item and maybe the worth of that item,” Henley said. 

Famous auctioneer from Dallas-Fort Worth, Myers Jackson, will auction off items starting at 3:00 p.m., right after the conclusion of the cutting competition, which will be hosted again by Master Bladesmith and irrepressible jokester Jerry Fisk

Henley then introduced Master Bladesmith J.R. Cook, an instructor at the James Black School in Washington. The Nashville, Arkansas resident told of the process of going from apprentice to journeyman to master, which started for him in 1985.  He attained master status in 1991 from the American Bladesmith Society.  In 2007, he was chosen by the Arkansas Arts Council as Arkansas’ Living Treasure. (Another Arkansas Living Treasure expected to attend the festival is Master Bladesmith Lin Rhea, who was so designated in 2023.) 

Cook passed around a Bowie knife, whose blade he described as “about 780 layers of alternating steel in a chevron pattern” with “24 karat gold inlaid into the guard.” He also displayed a knife with a 28-inch blade: “The grip is actually fossilized walrus ivory. This piece has been in the ground for God only knows how long, and the colors are absorbed from whatever minerals that it was close to in the ground. So that's why it's no longer white. But that's a pretty cool little knife. Some people call them sabers or hangers or hunting swords.” 

In a question and answer session, Cook said he kept records of the owners of his knives such that if any were sold, the owners were told to contact him to make sure the records reflect the change in ownership. He also described the process of turning a stack of steel pieces of alternating sizes into a knife blade and then explained a bit more of what it takes for a knifemaker to proceed through successive stages of having their various knives tested and judged over a staggered period of years toward attainment of master bladesmith status. When he attained master status in 1991 about 41 masters were working in the U.S. Now that number is somewhere under 200 but there were so many journeymen, Cook said, “I would hate to even guess” that number. 

The festival starts April 20th at 9:00 a.m., ends at 7:00 p.m. and is expected to draw 3,000 people. Admission is free and parking is $5. The poster distributed at the meeting is immediately below: