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At the Florida State Fair, what’s it like being an old-school blacksmith?

As crowds watch, Peter Perkins forges metal the 19th century way at the fair’s Cracker Country.
 
Blacksmith Peter Perkins forges a hook at the Florida State Fair's Cracker Country.
Blacksmith Peter Perkins forges a hook at the Florida State Fair's Cracker Country. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Feb. 5

At the edge of the rollicking Florida State Fairgrounds, with its blaring, jostling, neon midway and its foods fried and served on a stick, there sprawls an unexpected 4 acres of oak-shaded respite.

If Cracker Country seems like a simpler time, well, that’s the idea.

A living history museum about rural life in Florida more than a century ago, Cracker Country’s buildings include a schoolhouse constructed from local heart pine in 1912, a general store, post office and church — and of course, a blacksmith shop, critical to a community back when you couldn’t get next-day delivery of a hammer from Amazon.

In his leather suspenders, Peter Perkins, 65, works as a blacksmith, showing the craft to school kids during the year and this month to visitors at the annual Florida State Fair, which opens Thursday, Feb. 8. His wife, Catherine, also works at Cracker Country as a period-costumed “historical docent.”

“It truly is an oasis and a step back in time,” said Perkins.

A chat with him about Florida life in harder times and whether he’s ever gotten burned at work. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So what does a blacksmith do?

Works with iron and steel and fabricates everything from kitchen utensils to farm tools and equipment … nails, hinges, door handles. Blacksmiths have forged chain. There were no (other) resources to provide a farmer with a plow or a hoe, an ax, a saw. If you think of all the things in your life made of metal …

Iron was such a critical component to the existence of people on the frontier.

Peter Perkins places a piece of metal into hot coals to be  forged into a hook at the Florida State Fair's Cracker Country.
Peter Perkins places a piece of metal into hot coals to be forged into a hook at the Florida State Fair's Cracker Country. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Are you Florida-born, laying claim to Cracker Country roots?

No, I’m slightly north. I’m actually born in Massachusetts. The other side of the Mason-Dixon line.

What’s your background, and how did you end up “smithing,” as they say?

I have a background as an educator. I taught fourth grade. I’ve been a carpenter and a chef. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’m a public speaker, presenter, educator. I know my way around a lot of different disciplines.

I’ve trained as a 19th century blacksmith. (At) a California state park called the Empire Mine State (Historic) Park about an hour west of Lake Tahoe, we literally had a working blacksmith shop there. I volunteered.

I found Cracker Country literally online in the summer of 2022.

What era are we talking at Cracker Country?

We try to target the latter part of the 19th century, the earlier part of the 20th. We often say in 1890, this is what might have been going on. The Civil War was 30 years in the rearview mirror.

How important were blacksmiths?

They were the original toolmakers. A tailor needs scissors, a carpenter needs a toolbox full of tools, a farmer needs rakes and shovels and plows. Horses need shoes.

If any of that stuff broke you couldn’t just go to a store.

A smithy who was actually trained and skilled and had a shop was just sought after, because everybody had those needs for repairs and fabrication.

Is your Cracker Country job a paid position?

In my case and (wife) Catherine’s case, we’re on the payroll of the Florida State Fair Authority. We also donate an equal amount of time. It’s a part-time job with full-time enthusiasm.

Does Cracker Country seem a world away from the madness of the fair even though it’s on the same property?

Last year, my experience was that if the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can hear the rock ‘n’ roll bands. We lose a little of the 19th century essence when helicopters fly over.

But once you step off the midway and onto the Cracker Country grounds, you’re transported.

People fill the midway at the Florida State Fair in Tampa. 
MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020)
People fill the midway at the Florida State Fair in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020)

Do you have a favorite part of Cracker Country?

Honestly, I’m fascinated by rope making. We have a very expert fellow who has been our rope master a very long time. Rope is one of those things we take for granted till you see how it’s actually made. It goes back thousands of years.

During the fair, everyone (visiting) can make a personal size — we call it a jump rope.

People listen to music played by a quintet at Cracker Country at the Florida State Fair.
MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020)
People listen to music played by a quintet at Cracker Country at the Florida State Fair. MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020)

What’s your outfit?

I’ll wear a linen collarless shirt, long-sleeve, with a pair of canvas trousers. I have a nice pair of leather suspenders and some heavy leather boots. I have a leather apron. We don’t wear anything that melts.

My working temperatures are generally 1,700 to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s a little scary. Ever burn yourself?

When you work around hot stuff it happens from time to time. But with training, the burns are generally kind of superficial, a little piece of something will hop off a piece you’re working on. No, burning really isn’t an issue.

So what do you actually do for the visitors? Shoe a horse?

No. We have a couple of mules, but they show up with shoes.

(With school kids) my goal is to share a lot of information without overwhelming them. Being a former teacher, I’m big on this experiential learning. I’m all about something you can take back, put hands on, pass around.

I forge a hook for each class. The sky’s the limit to what you can make with a piece of metal. Key rings. Bottle openers are fun to make. I make a heart-shaped wall hook.

A hook forged by Peter Perkins, blacksmith at the Florida State Fair's Cracker Country
A hook forged by Peter Perkins, blacksmith at the Florida State Fair's Cracker Country [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Do the kids just think Amazon is easier, or are they interested?

There’s noise and there’s smoke and there’s fire and that gets the kids’ attention.

And the grown-ups?

People are really into it. I think there’s a lot of closet blacksmiths out there.

People look at smithing and say: I could never do that. Anybody can do it. There was nothing special about me learning blacksmithing, except I really embraced it.

Peter Perkins hammers a piece of hot metal that will be forged into a hook.
Peter Perkins hammers a piece of hot metal that will be forged into a hook. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Do you get people who get fascinated and stay and watch?

And people whose children wish they could just become my apprentice right now.

What do you think they get out of it?

I think we’re able to pretty successfully impress upon people that it was a simpler life, a slower pace.

But it was just hard. Everything was hard. Doing laundry, making soap, getting material to build your cabin.

I think we do a darn good job of impressing upon people how times have really changed. And where we came from.