A life rebuilt with a hammer, an anvil and a forge

Friday, July 27, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:37 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008
Denis Yates watches one of his workers at his blacksmithing booth at the Boone County Fair on Thursday. Yates owns Eagles Forge, a blacksmithing company based in Sunrise Beach, Missouri.

COLUMBIA — The ping of metal on metal advertises the steel creations in Denis Yates’ booth before fairgoers get to it.

The booth to the left of his makeshift blacksmith shop applies airbrush tattoos. The booth to his right sells hot tubs.

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“I would love to see more true crafters at the fair,” Yates said.

This is the second year Denis Yates has come from Sunrise Beach with his twin nephews to heat, pound, twist and sell odd bits of steel, railroad spikes and old hot water heaters at the Boone County Fair. He is known for his three-dimensional metal flowers.

The differences between the end products are subtle, but Yates prefers hammers and hot punches to make his pieces instead of modern methods that use hydraulics and electricity.

“We’re using the old techniques. Eighteenth-century blacksmithing, all done by hammer,” Yates said.

He is a friendly bear of a man who has spent 22 years of his life shaping metal into useful or valuable things. His recent works carry a faint cross with a slanted beam stamped into them. Called a touch mark, the imperfect cross is Yates’ signature, but it is also a symbol of his faith and his life.

Yates had lost everything before he came to Missouri in 2000. His job went first. He worked as a welder repairing mining equipment, and his company downsized after competition from Japanese steel companies in the late 1990s made it impossible to find work where he lived in Minnesota. His house and property went next, and Yates decided to go to Missouri where his mother lived.

“I had a station wagon, a welding trailer, an anvil and a forge,” Yates said.

He bought some property and lived in a tent for the first winter, but his skills with metal put him in high demand in Missouri. He made steel boat docks and did custom metalwork out of the shop beside his tent, which eventually provided enough money to build an 8-by-12-foot shack on the same land, that he lived in for the next two years.

While Yates agreed that reverting to 18th-century blacksmithing techniques after losing everything may not have been the logical approach, he said demand for his metal skills skyrocketed after coming to Missouri. He explained that the market for metalworkers in Missouri was far better than it was where he was in Minnesota.

“In Minnesota, anybody could do this,” Yates said, waving a calloused hand over his table of steel hangers, hooks, crosses and roses.

Business at the fair has been slow, and Yates admitted that he only sold four or five pieces on his first day. But he said he’ll keep pounding on for the last few days of the fair.

“We are out here for fun,” Yates said. “The Lord can take care of the rest.”

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