Inaugural James Black’s Bowie Heritage Festival features History Channel hosts, cutting contest and more

Courtesy of Christy Burns.

The first run of James Black’s Bowie Heritage Festival began Saturday morning with a ribbon cutting at the Old Washington WPA Gymnasium’s front doors.

Once the cut was made, hundreds of attendees moved into the building where a knife show was underway with what 20 of what the event schedules call World-Class Bladesmiths displaying their wares on tables.

Some knives had etchings on their blades. Some had exotic handles, like segments of elk horn and varnished marble. Some could chop trees down. Some were clearly for the kitchen. Some you’d simply display. Some smiths even brought elaborately decorative pistols they’d forged the parts and done the etchings for. One smith, calling himself Captain Chop-o-matic, was dressed like a 70s-era professional wrestler.

To the east of the 1874 Courthouse and on the stage starting at 9:30 was storyteller Robbin Ridgell, who read stories from her 2010 book “Ain’t Life Funny” about growing up near Prescott. The story entitled “It Could Happen to Anyone” involves a disappeared worm seen on a pile of shelled blackeyed peas suddenly reappearing in the worst of ways. You’ll want to buy her book to find out how.

Drawing a sizeable crowd in front of the James Black School of Blacksmithing and Historical Trades was the appearance of two hosts of The History Channel’s “Forged in Fire,” judge and cutting-weapon expert Doug Marcaida, Mastersmith and judge James Neilson, with Nashville native and show champion Ricardo Vilar of Nashville.

They answered a variety of questions from attendees over an hour’s time about the competitions on the show and the knife trade in general. In response to a question about how the knife makers felt about having their knives potentially destroyed during taping, Mercaida said, “There is nothing we ask of the contestants, there is nothing we’ll do on the show that these gentlemen [meaning Neilson and Vilar] will not do to their own knives. And that I will attest to.”

He told of trying to break Neilson’s blades and being told by Neilson, “Is that all you’ve got?

“We will not judge somebody else’s work if they themselves have not [tested it] themselves.” Mercaida added.

During the Arkansas State Cutting Competition, which followed the appearance of the “Forged in Fire” hosts, about fifteen knife makers tested their work and their skill against a series of challenges.

First, they competed to see who could use their knife to hack a two by four apart in the fastest time. Second, they were given points, or not, based on their ability to cut a thick, dangling rope in two so that the cut piece fell into a bucket underneath.

Third, they swung their blades at a downward sloping row of Dasani water bottles, often creating spectacular splashes. Fourth, they tried to cut a red tennis ball in half as it emerged rolling at speed from a tilted tube with several other colored balls. Finally, they used their knife tips to blindly attempt to pick up a five-card hand whose value could beat their competitors.

Throughout the hour and a half of knifeplay, Mastersmith Jerry Fisk of nearby Nashville regaled the audience with spirited and hilarious play-by-play and practical commentary about the crafts of smithing and competitive cutting. His most frequent advice to the knifers as they hacked at the wood was, “Hit it like you live. Fast and hard!”

The Arkansas State champion for 2022 was Jim Bob Lamb, who Fisk said edged out the runner-up by a two-tenths of a second margin in the 2 X 4 round.

By this point, it was 12:30 pm and the rest of the afternoon’s events included an oral history presentation and lecture on the forging of the Bowie knife by James Black. The historians Mark Zelesky and Mark Fleming presided. A reenactment of the knife’s creation took place for the second time that day, at 3:30 at the James Black Blacksmith Shop on Conway Street.

The last event of the day saw the two “Forged in Fire” personalities performing demonstrations, again at the James Black Blacksmith Shop, and signing autographs.

The James Black’s Bowie Heritage Festival is the first of its kind, but judging from the turnout, this reporter concedes its organizers, the City of Washington and University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana Foundation, have a hit on their hands.

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