Cheyenne Frontier Days blacksmith loves chance to teach, share trade knowledge
When Randy Calhoon was young, he had a government job welding nuclear missiles. It was right after the Vietnam War, in which he’d tried to enlist several times, but he was too young and got caught.
After traveling around the Plains to work on different sites, Calhoon realized the gravity of the weapons he was building. He decided he didn’t want to be a part of something destructive. Instead, Calhoon wanted to use his trade to make something positive.
That decision started him on the path to teaching.
That was more than 40 years and countless students ago. Calhoon has taught at college and high school levels and gives community blacksmithing demonstrations during Cheyenne Frontier Days every year. In Old Frontier Town at Frontier Park in Cheyenne, crowds line up to see smoke as he turns metal rods in the furnace, hits them with hammers against an anvil and explains the details of his trade. His booth is one of the busiest.
That’s fitting — incorporating pioneer trades into Frontier Days was his idea. He’s volunteered with Cheyenne, Wyo., almost nonstop since 1982, and in the ‘90s, Calhoon served as chairman of contract acts. When he left the general committee, he asked for his going-away present to be the establishment of more booths to celebrate the trades of the Old West. The trade booth started the next year, and a few years later, Calhoon started the blacksmithing demonstration.
But welding wasn’t always something he knew he wanted to do. He fell into it, much like he fell into teaching.
Calhoon was 16 when his uncle asked him to help build a fireplace front. He ended up loving the process. To this day, he still keeps track of all the fireplace fronts he builds; the number is in the hundreds.
Similarly, when Calhoon left the missile business, he wanted to do something constructive, so he went to a community college to learn more about his trade. There, he met when a Navy chief helped get him a scholarship for his bachelor’s degree with the condition that he taught afterward.
Both men saw something in Calhoon, and now, he looks for that something in his students. Sometimes, he finds it in unlikely places.
Early in his teaching career, he worked with a program for former criminals to help teach them a trade. Though many of his students had rough pasts, Calhoon said it was wonderful to see thvem blossom when given the tools for success.
He said he still has some of these students come up to him at Cheyenne Frontier Days and tell him if it wasn’t for his help, they wouldn’t have found success.
For Calhoon, seeing his students succeed is better than seeing that well-crafted fireplace front. That’s why, despite a few years off from Cheyenne Frontier Days, Calhoon decided to come back to the blacksmithing booth. He asked if he could use it as a teaching tool, and now he brings students from his classroom at Cheyenne Central High School with him each day during the 10-day run of Frontier Days. The students work beside him and learn some of the trade, as well as earn a paycheck.
“My students are the most important thing to me in my life,” Calhoon said. “It’s about them. It’s about keeping my trade alive through my students.” ❖
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