Pine River recently gained a practitioner in an uncommon art form with the arrival of blacksmith John Donelson.

Donelson moved into town Sept. 1 and has been setting up his workshop ever since. Before he came to the area he was an established blacksmith specializing in making custom muzzleloaders, knives, swords, axes and more. He thinks his interest in the trade started before birth.

Donelson was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At a young age his family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and when he was 10 they moved to Minneapolis. Donelson had one younger sibling, Sam.

Even growing up, Donelson was always somewhat different from other family members. He and his brother were both artistic, though in different ways. Donelson was always driven to make creative works of art and always driven to the outdoors.

While his family fished a lot and traveled around the state, especially to Alexandria, Donelson took that love to a whole new level. His father wasn't a hunter, but Donelson became not only a hunter, but a trapper. Like most things in his life, he had to teach himself.

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"I'd go out at literally 5 in the morning before the school bus would come and run the trap line," Donelson said. "It was two miles long. At that time furs were worth some money, so that's how I got money."

He didn't learn this interest from his family, so like blacksmithing, this too was something he feels he was drawn to before birth.

Donelson pursued a career in forestry. He got a degree from the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and quickly found out that the field at the time was saturated with applicants.

"If you wanted to be a forester in that day and age, that was when wildlife biology and forestry was going crazy," he said. "There were lots of us coming out of school. The only jobs you were going to get was if you fought forest fires out west for five years and then they'd talk to you."

That didn't interest Donelson, so he started working for a Christmas tree farm in Becker where he worked until 1990, when he and his then wife started their own farm on Highway 25 north of Becker.

While working the Christmas tree farm, Donelson raised a family with a daughter and a son and he started delving into the artistic hobbies he had been interested in when he was younger. Specifically, he got into creating custom guns.

"One of my buddies bought me one of these black powder pistol kits," Donelson said. "Pretty soon I was thinking about making my own parts. That's how I got into blacksmithing. By the year 2000, I decided I was going to make a gun completely from scratch. I was going to make every single part, even the screws."

John Donelson stands among the tools of his trade as a blacksmith. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
John Donelson stands among the tools of his trade as a blacksmith. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

It seems he was destined to become a blacksmith. He feels strongly that his interest in blacksmithing and the outdoors relates back to a past life.

"I did some things as a kid I'm quite clear were past life things that came up," he said. "My dad didn't do that kind of stuff. ... I just know there's a past life interest in all this too."

There's no denying his passion for blacksmithing and the outdoors resembles something from a bygone era. He's smithed swords, dirks, tomahawks and, as mentioned, he specializes in building historic muskets and pistols from scratch. He's a collector of both quality reproductions as well as real historical firearms.

"French guns kind of started a big attraction for me," Donelson said. "I realized that's probably a past connection too. I'm pretty intuitive and spiritual and connected in some ways with that.."

Over the years he made a name for himself, saying he was asked to be a guest on the popular "Forged In Fire" show on the History Channel.

"I don't really like the competitive nature of it," Donelson said.

Donelson gets very deep into researching the items he makes. Their history and their artistic flair is important to him. He has an entire personal library for research.

At first blacksmithing was a second job, but it took lots of time to maintain the tree farm. He raised a family working on that tree farm. His son and daughter both helped to maintain their cash crop, as did their employees. Their claim to fame was installing center pivot irrigation above their Christmas trees and growing varieties that weren't considered compatible with Minnesota.

After separating from his wife and the tree farm in 2012, Donelson traveled some, and this year he made a move to Pine River.

"I always wanted to be up in the Brainerd area," Donelson said. "When I started looking for a place actively, this place came up. This guy put it on Craigslist at 4 a.m., and by 6 a.m. I had pretty much locked it in."

Donelson brought his love for smithing and his tools with him, meaning that another metal worker has arrived in Pine River. He is just now getting the word out about his smithing and his demonstrations. He's exploring ways to let others know about his skills and availability.

Because his business, Donelson Custom Muzzleloaders, is gun related he's had trouble on some sites that don't allow gun sales. Even so, he has projects coming in, including custom made throwing axes he's currently creating for a couple.

Chances are he'll be more well known as the opportunities for public face time increase over time.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at