Need some convincing about why scythes are a worthwhile investment?

Thousands throng to the Lost Trades Fair

As a hobby-cum-business trying to promote the use of scythes, we’ve attended probably half a dozen or so demos and markets, ranging from something as subdued and regional as quiet local farmers’ markets to mowing the lawn of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) as a demonstration as part of the kooky Southern Scythe Squad, for MONA’s hip-and-happening market. We always create a bit of a stir, and there’s always some interest, but we really didn’t know what to expect from Kyneton’s Lost Trades Fair, since it was the first one ever run, and we hadn’t attended anything specifically targeted to promoting skills that are otherwise in decline.

Upon arriving in Kyneton on Friday night, I spotted the posters. The friend with whom I was staying assured me that it had been promoted “everywhere” (I found out later that this included breakfast TV, newspapers, radio, and magazines). On Saturday morning I walked down the main street with my snaths and suitcase full of equally lethal (apparently, from the airline’s perspective) blunt and sharp objects, to see more, and bigger posters, all over the town. On stepping foot inside the grounds of the Kyneton Museum, I knew I’d arrived at something entirely different.

Hand-stitched, hessian bunting decorated various walls in well-mixed colours of subdued tones – not your fluoro oranges screaming out that you’d arrived, but rather inviting you to step back a century or two. Stallholders’ gazebos were labelled consistently, but individually, with hand-painted signs: “Gunsmith”, “Locksmith”, “Cooper”. This was an event that had managed the near-impossible – professional presentation while still maintaining an entirely authentic feel, because, well, it was authentic.

From my perspective as a guy behind a stall, the first day was a blur. By mid-afternoon I was wondering whether my voice was going to hold out, along with my box of business cards. I had never seen such consistent crowds. We’re only relative newbies on the exhibiting scene, but still, it was clear that this was something special.

From a commercial perspective, our sales exceeded any other event by something ridiculous like 800%. My voice held out – just (I think I changed from baritone to bass) – but my business cards didn’t.

Glen and Lisa Rundell, the organisers, and their team, were incredible. It all worked like a well-oiled (but hand-powered) machine, and any teething problems were effectively non-existent, relative to the numbers that came through. Just a couple of examples: from the growing throngs, Lisa emerged with baskets of provisions, to keep stallholders fed and watered; in the lead-up to the weekend, Glen asked me if there was anything I needed, and I told him a log would do me fine for a peening bench. When I got there, I found my gazebo set up, signed, with a fully-fledged peening bench ready to go (nothing like the artistry of his Windsor chairs, but good enough for inspiration for my customers who took photos of it to enable them to replicate something similar). In short, “multi-talented” doesn’t really suffice as an adjective for these two. I learnt, for example, that Lisa was responsible for the PR campaign behind the event. How many people who have managed brands for the likes of L’Oréal can also prepare a rabbit stew from their own head-shot hunting take? And hand-stitched hessian bunting? Of course…

The result of these kinds of talents and passion for hands-on work were seen by many, many people over the weekend. Seven thousand people, to be more precise – so said the local Council who were doing the numbers. Cafés in the town closed mid-afternoon because they simply had no food left. No-one – not even the Rundells – knew it was going to be that big.

And the thing they flocked to see? People doing stuff with their hands. It actually restored some hope to what has been my increasingly despondent world view in the midst of the kind of news we’re greeted with these days. Even just to be able to gather such a collection of skills gave me some faith that next time something like this happens, or its man-made equivalent, humanity may actually have some prospect of a continued existence, and perhaps even of retaining something of our culture, experience, and lessons learnt.

Highlights of the two days for me were quite varied. Right up there was finally meeting existing customers who I’d spoken to on the phone or communicated with via email, who had brought something with them for advice. I sharpened a few blades and demonstrated freehand peening for those who were a bit hesitant to try it uninitiated – it was really rewarding to see the whole process become demystified. One customer brought along his self-made snath to compare it to the Canadian snath to get some ideas, as well as his blade – which he peened right there on the spot after a very brief “how to” session. He even ended up fielding some questions from other punters who, seeing him sitting at the anvil, assumed he was the man to speak to – which, as far as I was concerned, he was, because that’s what it was all about – not just showing skills but incubating them so they can be passed on again and again.

I also had a visit from a few customers of our “competitors” in Mudgee, who hadn’t seen our gear before (look out Dan & Nicole, I expect you’ll have several new customers as a result of referrals over the two days – more on Mudgee action to follow below), and I was able to restore a nice edge on their blades too.

It was a cultural experience as well: one gent recited scythe-inspired poetry; one lady – a member of an Austrian choir – broke into an Austrian peening song while I provided hammer-driven percussion-in-tempo with the very activity she was singing about (much, I imagine, as the song would’ve been “performed” at its inception); several gents of more life experience than me reminisced about their experiences with a scythe in their youth, and informed me of the origins of some scythe-related turns of phrase, e.g.: “it doesn’t cut the mustard”; some of the older punters dealt a good-humoured heckling to those game enough to try swinging a scythe –  “you wouldn’t last five minutes” – and it was my pleasure to hand the hecklers the Continental scythe for a weigh-in against the English style they remembered from their youth. I learnt over drinks on Sunday night (thanks Rundells!) that one sprightly gentleman I would’ve guessed as no older than 80, who expressed doubt in his ability to wield a scythe at his age, was actually a Kokoda Trail veteran, and was 94. “Ooooo yes, I could work that!”, he said, when I handed him a rig with an 85cm blade, then quipped, “for a time, of course!”

I’m also thrilled to say that Glen has put his hand up to try producing some prototype snaths for us in a variety of timbers. Having seen some of his work over the weekend I have absolute confidence in top-notch craftsmanship. It’s still early days but I feel we’re another step closer to having an Australian snath thanks to his “can do” attitude and shared passion for what we’re trying to do.

I think when I look back on this weekend in the future, the enduring memories will be masses of people, the strange sense of confidence that was evoked by hand-stitched bunting, and watching a guy taking his first swings with a freehand anvil and hammer. Maybe it’s just because it’s the end of a full-on weekend, I’m tired, and I’ve had an ale that my kids set out for my homecoming, but I have to admit that picturing him taking his first swings of the hammer, and knowing that I’ve helped just a little bit to impart an otherwise waning skill to someone, gets me a little bit misty-eyed…

For those of you who enjoyed, or missed out on, the fun at Kyneton, consider dropping Dan & Nicole Power a line. They run a “Scything Plus” workshop in Mudgee in April. Also this year, they’ll be running a demo at the Mudgee Small Farm Field Days in July, including a race between brush cutter and scythe, with our mutual customer (and commercial scyther) Jeff Keys doing the honours on behalf of the old-tech approach.

The few pictures below were taken on Sunday morning before the gates opened – the only chance I really had to look around – so it looks very empty!  For more photos, check out the Facebook page or wait for the reports to spring up…