Keeping Old Skills From Dying

One does not expect to find a FlipperDinger, much less a Whimmydiddle, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Yet there my wife and I found the toys during a visit many years ago.

They were in the institution’s main gift shop, and we were gratified to notice the packaging: “Mountain Craft Toys, Proctor, W.Va.”

Dick Schnacke established Mountain Craft Toys and operated the business for many years. Upon his retirement, I wondered what would happen to the shop.

I need not have worried. As a story we published earlier this month explained, Mountain Craft Toys is alive and well, continuing to delight children of all ages (many of them with gray hair). Ellie and Steve Conlon have run the business, along with their ThistleDew Farm honey operation, for years.

Back to FlipperDingers and Whimmydiddles. They’re old-fashioned toys, made mostly of wood. The only moving parts are human-powered. There are no electronics. Our ancestors, hundreds of years ago, would have known how to make them.

How many people today could make a whimmydiddle or any of the dozens of other wooden folk toys the Conlons produce? Precious few.

Real craftspeople, who have the skills and make the things lots of people had to be able to produce in the past, are becoming harder to find.

Marvin Wotring, of Morgantown, was one. He died a few weeks ago, creating something of a problem for fans of the West Virginia University athletic programs.

WVU’s Mountaineer mascot has carried a Wotring-made musket since 1977. Every time a new Mountaineer was named, Wotring made a musket for him or her.

They’re beautiful examples of craftsmanship from a bygone era. Think about what it takes to create a firearm, virtually from scratch. Excellent woodworking and metalsmithing skills are needed. So is knowledge of how a gun works. Wotring had all of that. Now, he’s gone.

We still see examples of craftsmanship at places such as the Artisan Center in Wheeling and Tamarack, in Beckley. Some have hefty price tags — but, if you can afford them, they’re well worth the money.

A few young people decide it’s worthwhile to put in the time and energy needed to learn how to make the things our ancestors had to be able to produce, or find near where they lived.

One is New Cumberland native Tommy Mathews, who gained fame by appearing on the History Channel program, “Forged in Fire.” Mathews, a blacksmith, creates knives from scratch. He hopes to come back to the Ohio Valley from Cleveland, where his Crooked River Forge company is located now.

Keeping the old skills alive is important, though a whole generation of young people wedded to their smart phones may not understand.

Craftsmanship is important in part because it gives us a glimpse into how our ancestors lived. If you think not being able to get on the internet is tough, think about what happened 200 years ago when the blade on the only knife you owned broke. It might be the difference between life and death.

But craftsmanship is important because it’s art created by people who care about doing something well. At one time, that attitude, too, could be the difference between surviving and perishing.

Happy new year, then, to the Conlons, Mathews and people like them — who still care.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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