Kent Knapp is a family man first and foremost, then a blacksmith and walking encyclopedia of Milwaukee history. He also plays a mean bass in a local blues band. Kent and his wife Shannon own Milwaukee Blacksmith, a small business hidden on Erie Street in the city’s Historic Third Ward.
Kent, Shannon and their six children are the subject of Milwaukee Blacksmith, a new series on History. The combination of craft and family dynamics has the potential to be some very good TV.
The show is about a tight-knit, hardworking family trying to make a living from an ancient craft. For Kent and Shannon, it’s all about the evolution of the business — a business they want to pass on to their kids. But the kids — Zoey Rae (22), Miles (21), Birdie (18), Oscar (17), and the babies, Dharma (3) and Tashi (1) — are young. They work together during the day, share a home at night, and often butt heads. And as skilled as they are at working metal, they may not want to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
I met the three older kids when I visited the shop during filming for the show. Shannon and the show producer greeted me at the side door of the single-story warehouse. I walked into the shop ahead of them and saw Kent sitting with Birdie on some worn couches just feet away from a 100-year-old screw press. Kent stared daggers at me when I walked in, like I was an untrustworthy prom date there to pick up his daughter. The daggers moved past me, and a smile lit up his face. “Hi, Shannon,” he said warmly.
After introductions, Birdie started working on his bike. He seemed to be itching to get out of the shop. I complimented him on his choice in bicycles. “Very light metal,” he said as he adjusted the seat.
Not interested in small talk, Kent yelled “Miles!” in his gritty voice. The eldest son emerged from beyond the screw press. Miles, the foreman of the shop, took me on a tour while the production crew got ready for the next segment. As we walked around, it was evident that the screw press wasn’t the only centenarian in the room. These machines are so old that the family has to make parts for them when they break down. He showed me the chalkboard where they keep track of customer accounts … and now episodes of the show as well. Projects in various stages of design and production were on the tables, including a set of bee-keeping tools.
Miles knows the business. He’s confident, well-spoken, and highly knowledgeable about blacksmithing and his shop. There aren’t many 21-year-olds as mature as Miles. But as soon as the production crew was ready and he wasn’t needed, Miles bolted out the door with Birdie to ride bikes. Kent yelled after them to keep their cellphones on because they’re needed back soon.
It was Zoey Rae’s turn to be in front of the camera — a testimonial. She stopped what she was doing in the far corner of the shop that I hadn’t noticed before. The concrete block walls in that section were lined with framed photos presumably of the Knapp family. She sat in front of the camera and declared she couldn’t do it. She wasn’t going to talk about Miles while he’s in the room. It was OK, because Miles was out with Birdie riding bikes.
The camera rolled and Zoey Rae started doing her bit. Then the sound guy halted everything. Beeps sounded — a garbage truck was backing up outside, or was it the trucks from the construction crew building condos across the street? It didn’t matter; we had to wait it out. The shop wasn’t made for a camera and sound crew.
Milwaukee Blacksmith premieres on History Aug. 23 at 10pmET/PT.