Susan Cohn/Daily Journal
TREASURES MADE BY HAND IN BRANSON, MISSOURI. Senior Craftsman Dennis Smith displays a knife he made from forging to polishing at Mountain Outfitters in Silver Dollar City, a
re-created 1880s Ozark mining village in the wooded hills near Branson.
SILVER DOLLAR CITY AND AMERICAN CRAFTSMANSHIP: TRADITIONAL SKILLS THRIVE IN BRANSON, MISSOURI. It all started with a cave. In the 1950s, the proprietors of Marvel Cave, one of the largest caves in Missouri, were looking for a way to keep tourists in the area after they had explored the cavern. They decided to build a theme park in the form of a replica Ozark mining town on the surface above the cave. Thus, Silver Dollar City was born. The town, originally comprised of five shops, a church and a log cabin, got its name because early visitors received their change in silver dollars. Today, the greatly expanded village is made up of 10 distinct districts where family-oriented stage shows run throughout the day. Themed amusement rides within its boundaries include Outlaw Run, the world’s steepest wooden coaster (a first drop of 162 feet at 81 degrees). And, of course, 300 feet below Silver Dollar City, Marvel Cave continues to offer its popular tours as it has since 1894, making it one of the longest running attractions in the Ozarks.
Silver Dollar City has also developed into a major national craft center. Period correct buildings house dozens of workshops where artisans demonstrate their skills. Visitors can watch glassblowers, basket weavers, potters, blacksmiths, bladesmiths, quilters and bakers, and then take home decorative arts, food and even furnishings made with the tools and traditions of a by-gone era.
Senior Craftsman Dennis Smith, who works at Mountain Outfitters making knives, gives a sense of the rich heritage that Silver Dollar City preserves. Knifemaking for Smith is both an art and a connection with history. Tired of modern culture’s “disposable approach to things,” he began blacksmithing as a hobby, intrigued by the 3,000-year-old art. Smith states simply, “I like old stuff.” Having grown up on a hill farm along the Spring River in northeast Arkansas where hunting and fishing were primary pastimes, he first crafted implements from camping equipment to fireplace sets. He later discovered an ancestral connection: his great-great-grandfather had been a blacksmith during the Civil War.
After Smith retired in 2007, he began working at the Silver Dollar City Blacksmith Shop. Some of the most popular items he hammered out were knives crafted from railroad spikes — so popular that soon railroad spike knives were all he made. Silver Dollar City’s Master Craftsman and Bladesmith Ray Johnson recruited Smith to move to the Knife Shop where he began expanding his knifemaking skills. Smith now makes a variety of knives from the intricately patterned Damascus style knives to the relatively simple but still popular railroad spike knives.
Smith said: “The more technological the world gets, with people sitting in front of a computer all day, the more they are interested in something people create with their hands. I can take an ugly black piece of steel and turn it into a functional, almost indestructible tool that will last for generations — and can be considered a work of art as well. A surprising number of knives are purchased by women. The biggest knife our shop makes is a “hoof rasp knife,” made from a farrier’s hoof rasp. The first three they sold were all to women. Then a woman from California came in and bought a $550 Damascus knife. These are the 320 layer knives with the intricate patterns on the blade. I asked, ‘Ma’am, do you mind if I ask what you’re going to do with that knife?’ and she said, ‘I’m an artist. I’m going to look at it.’”
Smith and his fellow craftsmen are regularly present at Silver Dollar City, but the town’s annual National Harvest & Cowboy Festival, this year from Sept. 12 - Oct. 25, brings in over 100 more visiting craftsmen for the seven-week event. To meet some of the Silver Dollar City artisans, visit VIDEO: http://www.pinterest.com/sdcattractions/demonstrating-craftsmen/
SILVER DOLLAR CITY PARTICULARS. Silver Dollar City is located at 399 Silver Dollar City Parkway, Branson. Assistance is offered with family reunion planning and military group reunion planning. For more information visit www.silverdollarcity.com or call (800) 475-9370.
AND REMEMBER: “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” — Bill Bryson.
Susan Cohn is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, Bay Area Travel Writers, and the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More of her stories may be found at http://ifwtwa.org/author/susan-cohn.