October 13, 2013

For some, Prater’s Mill is about preserving history

By Christopher Smith

— To see Hugh Bowie forging and smithing in a traditional kilt, you might think — as he put it — that “he just got off the boat from Scotland.”

And though he’s never stepped foot on Great Britain, his connection to it is blood thick.

“Most of my family came from there,” he said. “Most of them are still over there. My grandparents came over in 1915.”

Bowie’s grandfather was a professional blacksmith, he said. Bowie, along with members of the Choo Choo Forge in Chattanooga, have kept blacksmithing alive at the Prater’s Mill Country Fair “on and off” for 15 years.

The festival continues today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parking is free, while admission is $7 a person (children 12 and under get in free). The fair is off Ga. Highway 2 between Cleveland Highway and Coahulla Creek High School.

So why has Bowie been coming to the festival all this time?

“If you lose part of history and no one wants to teach it and pass it on, you’ve lost a lot,” he said.

That’s true, said fellow blacksmith Jeff Clawsons.

“We try to keep the craft alive,” he said, adding that he joined the nonprofit group by chance.

“I just went to watch one day,” he said, “and the second time one of the guys said, ‘you ready to make something?’”

That was seven years ago. Now Clawsons braves the 1,700- to 1,800-degree furnace to twist all kinds of metals into art, preferring to use old railroad spikes.

He gets burned “all the time,” but it’s worth it, he said.

“We can find a purpose for any steel,” he added.

Lucy DeRenne of Cleveland, Tenn., who brought her family of five to the festival, said she was impressed by the dedication the blacksmiths showed.

“You can really feel the heat coming off the furnace,” she said. “I don’t think I could put up with it. I worked in fast food, in the kitchen, and it was hot in there, but that heat is unreal. I think it’s great they are keeping history alive.”

And who knows, Bowie said, knowing how to blacksmith could be very important one day.

“What happens when technology doesn’t work anymore?” he said. “I don’t need electricity (to survive).”