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Bemidji grad looks forward to demonstrating blacksmithing skills at Beltrami County Fair

Joe Skjaret, a local blacksmith, shapes a piece of steel at his home. Skjaret will be demonstrating his work at the Beltrami County Fair in August. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service1 / 2
Joe Skjaret adds some final touches by straightening the piece of steel with wood blocks. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service2 / 2

BEMIDJI—You take notice as soon as you hear Joe Skjaret at work, and as a blacksmith who enjoys demonstrating for the public, he counts on it.

"The sound of the anvil's ring, that really drives people to wherever I'm demonstrating. It grabs them by the neck and yanks them over here," Skjaret said. "... I want them to walk away feeling like they learned something that was valuable, not just some random piece of trivia, but they walk away with a better understanding about what kind of work goes into their everyday lives."

Skjaret, a 2006 Bemidji High School graduate who moved back home a year ago after serving more than eight years in the U.S. Air Force, is looking forward to demonstrating his craft for the public as part of the Beltrami County Fair.

His demonstration will be available outside of the Doud Cabin, the historic log cabin from the late 1800s that was home to Freeman and Betsy Doud, one of the first pioneer families in the area.

The Beltrami County Historical Society oversees the Doud Cabin and invited Skjaret to demonstrate this year.

"He's very authentic," said Sue Bruns, secretary of the Beltrami County Historical Society, who also is Skjaret's former assistant principal, which is how they reconnected.

Skjaret grew up woodworking, but became fascinated with blacksmithing while volunteering at the Carriage Hill Historical Farm, a 19th century farm that showcases life from that era through living-history interpreters.

He was living in Ohio with his wife, Kayla (Sundquist), also a 2006 Bemidji High School graduate, and their three children when he visited the farm while on convalescent leave for surgery.

The farm quickly piqued his interest and he began volunteering as a woodworker.

"(One day), there was a retired Air Force colonel who was working in the blacksmith shop and it was a beautiful day out but the park was dead. ... I'm watching this guy work for a while ... and I just made this off-hand comment, 'Man, I'd love to do that one day,' and he goes, 'Grab a hammer and get in here,' " Skjaret said.

That was the beginning of what would jump-start a three-year introduction and exploration into blacksmithing. He began working with mentors and immersed himself in research.

"I picked up whatever info I could and just kept absorbing and absorbing and absorbing," he said.

Eventually, he needed his hobby to bring in some financial support, so Skjaret started selling his wares.

Now, in addition to a full-time job at L&M Fleet, he operates Rock Water Forge.

"I love what I do. I don't see myself ever stopping blacksmithing at this point. It's one of those arts where you can never learn everything," he said. "Every time I think I have done anything and everything you can, with a hook for example ... I'll be watching a video on YouTube or be at a demonstration and I'll see someone do something with a wall hook and I'm like, 'Whoa! What's that? Where'd that come from?'"

At this year's fair, Skjaret said, he plans to work on traditional projects such as wall hooks, heart-shaped horseshoes and "twirly toys."

"They're traditional toys from around the 1800s," he said. "Most parents today would look at it and scream and run the other way, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, it looks dangerous,' a piece of steel, pointy at both ends and twists. .... Basically it's an 1800s fidget spinner."

His demonstrations also include anecdotes and education about blacksmithing and how it has changed over the years.

"I always like to throw in little bits of history when I'm working," he said.