Museum working to preserve heritage crafts

Traditional craftsmanship is becoming less and less a part of our daily lives as much of it is canned, boxed and made elsewhere.

One of the side effects, for lack of a better term, of COVID-19 in our culture is the realization of some of the skills that are almost gone. The handcrafting of necessary objects in our lives has become more of a pastime, rather than a necessity and the knowledge and skill of the craftsman has rapidly diminished.

Heritage Craft Preservation is a term that is now known worldwide and is being embraced by many cultures who see the traditional craftsman fading away. The Union County Heritage Museum is working to preserve some of these skills.

Recently, a bow-making class and a basket-weaving class were held at the museum last week and are part of the Heritage Craft Preservation effort.

“We received a grant through Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area to keep specific crafts alive and to make a regional effort to find crafts persons who could share their talents through teaching their handcrafts to others,” said Jill Smith, museum director.

“With the recent pause in the museum’s programs and outreach, we were able to hold small classes, keeping our numbers low and maintain social distancing,” she said.

Basket maker J. D. Jones of Baldwyn taught a basket-making class. Jones has participated in Heritage Pioneer Days at the museum for almost 20 years. He is a member of the pioneer reenacting group Tombigbee Pioneers who are seen throughout the region.

Craftsman Donald Watts from Keownville taught the bow-making class to three individuals who worked with hand tools, including a hatchet, draw knives, files and scrappers – and muscle power at the museum’s woodworking shop. “Primitive skills have always interested me,” Watts said. He has been making wooden bows for about 30 years. “I got serious about it after the ice storm of 1994. We were without power for 23 days. But even before that, I was interested.”

Along with making bows and arrows, he makes black powder, does leather working to make quivers and moccasins, he has made tipis, makes meade, cheese, and has tapped maple trees for syrup.

Watts has made bows out of several types of wood in the area, but he said from his thorough research, most were made out of hickory in earlier times. “I am not certain which kind of hickory, because there are several kinds that grow here.”

“Most of those early bows were about six feet long and would be used for hunting and warfare.” The pull on the bows he makes for himself ranges from 40 to 60 pounds.

Watts has taught himself the many characteristics of the woods and what they will and will not do. His knowledge has allowed him to adapt and design the bows for peak performance.

He hunts with arrows he made from the local river cane that he has fletched with turkey feathers – and no, he does not have a fletching machine. He developed his own method of fletching.

“The things I have learned take time, and most people don’t want to persevere enough to become proficient at it,” he said.

He knows how to get water three or four different ways – and that does not mean turning on the faucet. He can also start a fire multiple ways without matches. His Crawdad Holler School for Primitive Skills is not in operation now, but was a few years ago – his effort to teach others survival skills. Semi-retired, he is currently furloughed and working on honing his survival skills in Keownville.

As part of the Heritage Craft Preservation program, carrying on the craft is important, so people who take these classes are asked to continue the craft, if possible and to become good enough at it so that they can teach others, Smith said.


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