published Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Maryville man makes knives, guns from days gone by

By The Daily Times
  • photo
    Lonnie McMillan displays some of the hunting knives he makes as he talks about the tools of life from the 1700s and 1800s, in Marysville, Tenn. Years ago, when he couldn't afford period attire for his duties as a re-enactor, he began making weapons as a hobby. "I came to the conclusion that it was cheaper to make the weapons myself," McMillan said. AP Photo/The Daily Times, Tom Sherlin

MARYVILLE, Tenn.—Years ago when Lonnie McMillan couldn’t afford all the period attire for his duties as a re-enactor, another hobby was set into motion that has long since taken over as his favorite challenge.

“I came to the conclusion that it was cheaper to make the weapons myself,” McMillan said as he laid some of his recent creations on the dining room table. “I was raising a family and couldn’t afford to buy it.”

That was back in the 1980s. McMillan got some experts to teach him the metallurgy part of making the hunting knives, and others showed him how to take the deer and elk horns, bones and wood to carve out the handles. To make sure the weapons he was making were correct to the period he wanted to imitate — namely the 1700s and 1800s — he also used Madison Grant as a teacher. A picture book by Grant was the pattern he adopted.

McMillan reached down and chose one of his knives with a history behind it. This one happens to be a replica of a famous Revolutionary War veteran, he explained. Isaac Shelby was a veteran of that war who then became the first governor of Kentucky. A man in North Carolina has Shelby’s hunting knife and McMillan has made his own copies of it.

Then there’s the bowie knife, named for Jim Bowie. No one really knows what Bowie’s personal hunting knife looked like, but they know the maker was James Black. “This one is a replica of one of James Black’s knives now in the Arkansas State Museum,” McMillan said.

This hobby born out of necessity became something more when other re-enactors and hunters found out about McMillan. “I got to making stuff and people got to wanting to buy it,” as McMillan explained it. Then in 2001 he left a job at ALCOA Inc. and decided to turn a hobby into a money-making proposition. That hasn’t changed.

In addition to the hunting knives, McMillan also makes turkey calls, muzzleloading guns, pocket knives and accessories. In actuality, this craftsmen started out making the turkey calls before he ventured into the other frontier tools.

And he credits other experts for helping him hone his skills at this craft as well. That and a good pair of ears. “I was taught by other people but I also listened to a lot of wild turkeys,” he said.

Just plain interesting

In one of his hands, McMillan held what he said is a replica of the oldest turkey call known to man. It is made from the wing bone of a hen turkey. American Indians taught us to make it, he explained.

He said with a little practice, you can imitate every sound a turkey makes with this primitive tool.

McMillan takes his wares to shows like the Craftsmen’s Fair in Gatlinburg twice a year, and beyond. His repeat customers have learned that this knife maker cares more about producing quality than quantity.

“For that knife to be a good knife when you put it together, it’s got to feel good in your hand and it’s got to hold an edge well,” he said. “That involves not just metallurgy but also handling a lot of knives, knowing them and using them and knowing how they need to feel.”

It doesn’t come as a surprise then when McMillan reveals which frontier tool he enjoys making the most. “If I had my druthers, I would just make knives,” he confessed.

Like women and shoes

Add to McMillan’s skill some eye-catching details and a sale is in the making soon enough. McMillan said knife buyers and women who purchase shoes have a lot in common.

“If you like them you will buy them whether you need them or not,” he said. “A man might come by who already has 100 knives but if he sees one of mine he likes, he’ll buy it, just cause he likes it.”

Also on the table in front of McMillan was a powder horn he has been working on. He was planning to do some scrimshaw work on it. He said powder horns were powder holders for hunters in the frontier days, but they were also a canvas on which to draw or write.

These tools of days gone by — the powder horns, muzzleloading rifles and the various assortment of knives were indeed tools of survival and necessary for most families. McMillan said his grandmother and aunts always carried pocketknives, and one of his grandmothers used hers to cut off a twig so she could brush her teeth — with snuff. The guns and knives helped put food on the table and provided a sense of security.

“Guns — other than a good wife and a good dog — were your most prized possession,” McMillan pointed out.

Tools and tales

McMillan has a story to tell with every knife and gun he sells, which makes them all the more appealing. He has stories about his seventh and eighth grandfathers who killed British officers in the Revolutionary War with a flintlock rifle called a Southern mountain rifle. McMillan makes replicas of this plain, but accurate rifle and said those British officers were killed with this gun from 200 yards away.

“It is primitive by today’s standards but in the Revolutionary War it was the most advanced weapon in the world,” McMillan said.

All of those interesting family stories have now catapulted this knife and gun maker into new territory — he is writing a series of short stories that include many of his ancestors and their antics. Four volumes of people like his seventh grandfather who fought in four Revolutionary War battles and served under Gen. Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. And his seventh grandmother’s oldest brother who is one of the founders of the city of Cincinnati.

“I love historic research,” he explained.

McMillan calls himself an amateur historian and rightly so. He said while other craftsmen in his trade may be just as talented, most have one gift missing, a gift he never fails to utilize when making a sale.

“Most people who do this don’t sell anything,” he said. “They could sit here all day and not say 10 words. I talk to people. I like to talk to people. I like to tall about the history of this. When people come by my booth at craft shows they come to hear me tell a story.”

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