Bowie knives created at Historic Washington State Park
Knives at the blacksmith shop at Historic Washington State Park

This year marked the inaugural launch of the James Black's Bowie Heritage Festival in Washington, Arkansas. The city, in partnership with the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana Foundation and Historic Washington State Park, hosted the event on April 23.

Arkansas has many connections to the craft of bladesmithing and the state is home to many talented bladesmiths, many of whom teach at the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades. The school is located at Historic Washington State Park at 601 Lawrence Street.

Among the instructors at the school is Master Bladesmith Jerry Fisk, a National Living Treasure and Honorary Arkansas Living Treasure whose love for the craft began when he first visited the blacksmith shop at Historic Washington State Park when he was a kid; Master Bladesmith James “JR” Cook, who is also an Arkansas Living Treasure; Master Bladesmith Lin Rhea, the resident blacksmith at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, and Ricardo Vilar, who has competed in the Forged in Fire series and also was a judge for the Forged in Fire Latin American Edition on the History Channel. Many of these instructors were at the festival.

Fisk and Cook say that it is important to teach and carry on the bladesmithing craft. They include both the old methods, as well as modern techniques and innovations. Watch their video to hear why they became master blacksmiths, more about teaching the next generation of blacksmiths and having their work featured at Historic Arkansas Museum.

Arkansas, since the start of the American Bladesmith Society, has been an epicenter of bladesmithing. Around 10 percent of the world’s recognized Master Bladesmiths are Arkansans and the first bladesmithing school, the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing, was created in the state in the late 1980s. For many years the school was the only one of its kind in the nation. The James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trades builds on this special heritage the craft has in the state.

The town of Washington, Arkansas, which is home to Historic Washington State Park, has many ties to bladesmithing too. The original Bowie knife, which is now the state knife of Arkansas, was made there.

Washington’s most famous blacksmith, James Black, is credited with forging one of the original Bowie knives for James “Jim” Bowie in the early 1830s. The town, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is now both a state park and town intermingled. The park includes over 30 restored historic structures that serve as a homage to what life was like in the town during the 1800s.

One of the many structures people can tour now when they visit Historic Washington State Park is an interpretive blacksmith shop. Built by the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation in 1960, the shop has working forges.

Jerry Ligon is the park blacksmith and says the shop is not a reproduction but rather a representation of Black’s shop since no one knows exactly what his shop looked like. Check out the video to learn more about James Black, the history of the Bowie Knife and how Black would have forged his knives.

The story of Jim Bowie as well as the history of bladesmithing are also told at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in their Knife Gallery. Both Fisk and Cook have knives in the exhibit. They say that it is an honor and they both take great pride in having their work included. This permanent exhibit, which is currently under refurbishment, includes more than 100 historical and modern knives, including the impressive Bowie No.1, and is the official exhibit for the American Bladesmith Society.

For more information about Historic Washington State Park, visit For more information about the James Black School of Bladesmithing and Historic Trade school, visit


Zoie Clift sitting outside alongside a stream Zoie Clift has been a staff travel writer for Arkansas Tourism since 2006. She covers the Central and Southwest regions of Arkansas. Born in Little Rock and raised in North Little Rock, she now calls Hot Springs home. She has an environmental studies degree from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University. She is an avid hiker, mountain biker and kayaker and enjoys exploring the backroads of Arkansas and sharing the wonderful stories of The Natural State with locals and visitors from around the globe.
Monika Rued Arkansas State Parks Public Information Officer climbing at Mount Magazine State Park Monika Rued is the Public Information Officer for Arkansas State Parks. She, her son, Pierce, husband Fitz, and two rescue dogs love the outdoors and taking advantage of our incredible state parks. Monika is passionate about sharing everything Arkansas has to offer, her family, making a difference for families in need, enjoying incredible local fare, rock climbing, and as a ginger is always on the quest for the best sunscreens and moisturizers.

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James Black's Bowie Heritage Festival Photo Gallery