Anthony Martin carries on the family tradition
This story starts in 1996 when a prolific collector and user of fish gigs began the quest to find someone to teach him how to forge a gig. That done, he wrote the definitive book on Ozark gigs and made gigs himself.
It ends with the former apprentice passing on the craft to five others — including the grandson of the master who taught him — and with the grandson traveling to Washington, D.C. soon to share his newfound skills with the rest of the world at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
When Ray Joe Hastings began his quest the tradition of Ozark gigmaking had just about died out. He was fortunate to discover Paul Martin, an aging master blacksmith living in Bunker.
“I had started collecting gigs and I went to Van Buren one time and went to this hardware store and saw two or three of his gigs there,” Ray Joe recalls. “I said, ‘Would you tell me who made that?’ They said, ‘Yeah, Paul Martin made that.’ I asked them where he lived and they said ‘Bunker.’ I didn’t let my shirttail touch my pants till I had a bead on Bunker.”
Ray Joe, an Ozark Border Electric Co-op member from Doniphan, found Paul in a small shed behind his house pounding out his latest gig.
Fish gigs are three- or four-prong forks made from tough steel and mounted to a 14- to 16-foot wooden pole. They are used to stab rough fish such as suckers in the clear Ozark streams.
Smaller gigs are also used for bowfishing, something Ray Joe remembers from his youth. That’s what he asked Paul to make on his first visit to his smithy.
“I said I always wanted one of those little ones with four prongs,” Ray Joe recalls. “He just grabbed a piece of steel. He said, ‘Here, I’ll make you one.’ When he handed that to me, I’ll tell you what, it was beautiful.”
In time Ray Joe asked Paul if he would teach him to make gigs. At first, the 70-year-old declined. But Ray Joe persisted and even got in touch with the Missouri Folk Arts Program, which offers funding through its Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. The program pays the master to set aside their work long enough to teach the apprentice.
“It kind of swayed him,” Ray Joe says. “He told me, ‘The only reason I am doing this is for my funeral expenses.’ One thing led to another and there I was taking lessons.”
On one of his visits, Ray Joe met Anthony, one of Paul’s 27 grandkids. The 10-year-old was under strict orders to stay out of the way. The youngster did as he was told, but still stood close enough to feel the heat from the coal forge. The orange glow of the hot steel caught his eye in more ways than one.
Toward the end, Anthony cared for the aging patriarch and listened to his stories about forging gigs. He learned the tradition was passed down from Paul’s father, Tucker, who made gigs for use on Current River.
“My grandpa actually didn’t like the way his dad’s gigs looked,” says Anthony, a member of Howell-Oregon Electric Co-op from Winona. “Great-grandpa Tucker made gigs to use. As soon as he was done with them somebody was gigging with it. He hammered that thing out and on a pole it went and it was in the water. So his gigs were rough.”
In time, Paul would create his own recognizable style of gig. It’s estimated he made more than 3,000 gigs in his lifetime.
When Paul died in 2006, his son, Danny, inherited his forge and anvil and made a few gigs. “Uncle Danny wasn’t making very many gigs anymore,” Anthony says. “Grandpa passed away and he just didn’t have the heart to do it. The more I thought about it, I thought if I don’t do this nobody’s going to.”
He couldn’t forget watching his grandpa in the shop, nor the smell of the coal and the roar of the hand-cranked blower feeding air to the fire.
“I can’t say I don’t have a choice because I know I have a choice,” Anthony says of his decision to follow the family tradition. “But in my heart, I know if I don’t do this I couldn’t live with myself.”
His uncle brought him a small forge and encouraged him to give it a try. With help from a cousin, Anthony attempted to recall the steps he had seen his grandpa take so long ago. “I remembered a few things from seeing Grandpa do it, but I couldn’t remember step No.1. We cut one out, but boy was it gnarly.”
Rather than give up, Anthony reached out to that apprentice he first saw laboring side by side with his beloved grandpa. Ray Joe, close to laying down his hammer himself, instead stepped up to the anvil to train one more gigmaker. The two applied for a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship and were funded.
Anthony proved to be a quick study in what is a tough tradition to perfect. His skills improved to the point that when Ray Joe was asked to demonstrate at the Folklife Festival he declined and suggested Anthony instead make the trip.
“They asked me how he was doing and I said, ‘My goodness, he can make a gig easy.’ He has his grandpa’s blood in him, there ain’t no doubt. I thought Anthony was the perfect person to do this,” he says.
For 14 days, Anthony and his wife, Rebekah, will be set up on the National Mall demonstrating the art of gigmaking. “I never would have thought I would be doing that,” Anthony says. “I planned on learning to make gigs so that I could sell a few and earn a little extra money. The biggest thing was I wanted to make gigs so I could keep this going. I wanted to teach my son, Riley. And I wanted to be able to get to the level Grandpa was at so I could prove to myself I could do it. There’s so much more to the whole thing. I feel like it’s who I am.”