For David Burnette, Haywood Community College Hand-Wrought Metals Instructor, passing on the mountain traditions and skills he has learned in his life is one of his most important missions. And he takes it serious. Taking the easy road, which is sometimes the standard these days, never enters his mind.
A perfect example would be the molasses making event he hosts at his home three weekends in September. Everyone is invited to attend. And people come from far and wide year after year. What some people may not realize is that not only is Burnette making the molasses right in front of your eyes, he spent part of the year beforehand growing the cane to make the molasses. On his farm, he plants ¾ an acre of cane and makes somewhere between 120 to 150 gallons of molasses each season, all of which is sold within one to two weeks of being made.
Burnette grew up learning these traditions. “My dad was older when I was born and my grandmother lived with us,” he explains. “I saw the way they lived and did things. When other teens were listening to rock, I was listening to bluegrass.”
Burnette says his now grown children knew growing up not to ask for the latest toy or fad. “When we were out somewhere and they saw something they really wanted, I always told them why buy that when we can make it.”
This philosophy is evident in all aspects of Burnette’s life. He has a small sawmill at home which he bought for the sole purpose to use to build his house. He has put the mill to good use where he has expanded the property buildings several times to include barns, molasses sheds, and sawmill buildings.
Another tradition that Burnette has shared with not only HCC students throughout the years, but students from numerous other colleges, is having meals cooked over a campfire. Each year at the Cradle of Forestry in Transylvania County, Burnette takes a small group of volunteers to the Woodsmen’s Meet and cooks meals for all students and coaches who participate in the event.
The teams and coaches camp at the site and the nearest restaurant available to them is quite a trip down the road. “We cook these meals right in front of these students, some who have never experienced anything like this,” Burnette explains.
Another tradition is shared with this often younger generation.
Burnette recalls when the administration at HCC first approached him about teaching the blacksmithing classes. “It was a breath of fresh air. I had these skills. I feel blessed that people want to take these classes and I get to pass on what I have learned over the years. And I enjoy seeing people get results from it.”
Hand-wrought metals students make a wide range of blacksmithing pieces from simply artistic to purely functional, gardening tools and knives, to candle holders and bottle openers. And the students themselves are just as varied, coming from all walks of life. A farmer may enroll alongside a doctor, both with different outcomes envisioned for the class.
“Some of these students come to learn these skills to become self-sufficient and live off the grid. Others come to learn to make and repair tools they plan to use. They all leave knowing they went through a class that is very hands-on.”
Perhaps one of the most ironic parts of Burnette’s story is the fact that growing up, he admits how much he hated school. Never thinking he would teach at all, Burnette has been at HCC for more than 30 years, first teaching in the Wood Products program. He has touched so many students.
“I really like what I’m doing here,” Burnette says. “Every time I build a fire in a forge, I think about how many people would love to get paid to do this. I wish everyone could work in a job and get as much enjoyment from it as I get. People have got away from contentment. But I am content.”
In true form, Burnette is quick to point out that many people before him have made such an impact through their work at HCC. “None of us are where we are now without help from others.”
Burnette certainly does his part to help others. Whether in the classroom or on his farm, he strives to preserve mountain life and mountain traditions. For more information about HCC’s Hand-wrought Metals classes, please call 627-4635.