Most people wouldn’t picture a English teacher in the burly role of blacksmith, spending hours on end behind a flaming forge creating works of art in iron and steel. But most English teachers aren’t Mike Rowley.
A long-time teacher and former football coach at Enterprise High School, Rowley has had an interest in smithing nearly as far back as he can remember, when he made a knife at the age of nine or ten. He took his skills into the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” competition, which pits four bladesmiths against one another forging various weapons from raw materials.
After three elimination rounds, Rowley was named the winner.
“It was terrible,” he said while laughing. “No power tools or anything. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
When he started watching the show in its second season he had a small forge and an anvil made of railroad rail.
“I would watch an episode and say, ‘I could do that,’ or, ‘I couldn’t do that, and I better learn how,” he said. He eventually started making his own tools such as tongs and hammers. He also attended what he described as “YouTube University” as well as read a number of books on the subject to sharpen his skills.
“I like the idea of knowing stuff,” he said. “The knowledge that I thought might be lost because we’re moving away from it. When that show came out, it lit a fire in the U.S., and now a lot of guys are doing it.”
Rowley doesn’t teach a forging class at the school because the school doesn’t have one, but he’s more than willing to have students visit his home forge to learn the basics. He recently helped a student create a knife for her grandfather. “She showed me a picture of what she wanted, so I forged it and got it ready for her to come over and do the handle part and some other work on it,” Rowley said. He said he’s helped about a dozen students create their own works.
Sworn to secrecy by the show’s producers, he couldn’t let students know of his victory.
The show takes place in New York, although Rowley stayed in Stamford, Connecticut, about 10 minutes away from the set each night. Filming took a solid two weeks with a week in New York followed by a short break and filming resuming at the bladesmith’s home forge for the finals. Rowley said that the home segment took about 45 hours to film but was condensed down to about two minutes on the show. Filming started in June and ended in early July.
Surprisingly, Rowley didn’t have to contact the show to get a spot. The show contacted him after seeing some of his work on Instagram. He exchanged several emails with the show’s producers before submitting to a Skype interview before being chosen. They didn’t give him acting lessons to appear more natural.
“They just said, ‘be yourself,’” Rowley said. “I joke all the time, so I joked my way through most of the show.” He added that he was also nervous about making a fool of himself on the show.
When the big night came, on Wednesday, Dec. 12, about 100 current and former students as well as parents crowded into his classroom for the show’s unveiling. Despite some technical glitches in the showing, students stayed glued to the screen as Rowley took on three other competitors. Their first task was to forge a knife blade of steel wool. “Who thinks of this stuff?” Rowley said on the air. The teacher made several quips on the show that made the audience laugh and showed his humor and ease with himself.
The teacher got right down to business and with meticulous preparation and heat, the steel wool made fine stock for a knife blade. Not all the contestants were so lucky. Two fell by the wayside as their knife blades could not stand up to solid use, which consisted of chopping through bone and other tasks.
Rowley plugged the school and community several times on the show but only a mention of red epoxy glue being an EHS school color and a remark about his profession made it past the cutting room floor. Soon enough only Rowley and another competitor were left for the final project — twin steel tomahawks with a smoking pipe opposite the blade. The contestants made their way home with Rowley’s first attempt essentially a failure. That didn’t stop the instructor, however. Using equine hoof rasps, Rowley forged a pair of beautiful tomahawks with handles of desert ironwood. He also tried out the pipe, which worked magnificently. He was ready.
The tomahawks and pipes were put to the test by the show hosts through ax throwing, chopping a pig carcass, and as tomahawks were 18th century war weapons, they were also used to great effect on a mannequin dressed as a British soldier. Both instruments performed admirably with little difference in cutting quality, but only one would triumph. As it happened, Rowley’s opponent had not followed the adage, “measure twice; cut once,” and one of his tomahawk handles was at least an inch longer than the other. The prize went to Rowley.
The room erupted in applause and the teacher received a standing ovation and shouts of congratulations from students and adults alike. A number of hugs were distributed as well as he answered a few questions before the audience departed. For example, the show will keep the knife and tomahawks he made.
Later, Rowley said the toughest thing about the show was the heat with four forges running. Temperatures on the set soared to more than 120 degrees at times.
“We’re not used to that kind of heat and humidity in Wallowa County,” he said. “It nearly killed me off.”
Most rewarding for Rowley was the bond he formed with the other contestants. The group plans to build a samurai-type sword together to auction off. They also want to meet in Atlanta for a blade show coming up next year.
Rowley felt most gratified at the student response.
“They were amazing, and when they watched the end everybody clapped and stood up, I was misty, and when I went into the cafeteria today and the students started clapping it was cool,” Rowley said. “I think they knew that one of the reasons I went is to represent them. I care about my students, and I wanted them to know: No risk, no reward.”