Kilt-Wearing Blacksmith Brings Unique Style to Tiny Texas Town

Cliff Yeary hasn't been seen in pants for eight years.

The kilt-wearing blacksmith of historic downtown Milford marches to his own drummer.

His garment of choice hearkens back to his ethnic heritage: Scottish on both sides. His everyday wear is a leather kilt. For dressier occasions, he sports his family tartans.

"I swear, if the aliens came down and saw us naked, they'd put kilts on men the way we're built," he said with a grin. "It's the most unbelievable garment on the face of the earth."

At first it was a novelty. With a leather kilt and lace-up Roman-style calf boots, he resembles a character from the movie "Highlander" or a Roman centurion.

"I got so much attention that I kept it on -- and it's so unbelievably comfortable to wear," he said.

A rugged and imposing 6-foot-3, he finds the kilt softens his appearance.

"The kilt has been my biggest bonus in communicating with people. It's been like a gateway," he said. Some like it hot

While others are complaining about the Texas heat, Cliff Yeary has other irons in the fire. Literally.

His vintage commercial building, built 64 years ago to be an auto repair shop, fronts old U.S. Highway 77 in downtown Milford.

He's turned it into a smithy and apartment and studio all rolled into one. It will eventually become a gallery for his work, while the back will be a working blacksmith's shop where students can learn the craft and scout groups can observe him at work.

"The whole thing is like a giant art project," he said. "I'm going to turn (the building) into an art piece -- I've got the first building you see when you come off the highway, so it's got to be pretty. I want to see people's curiosity -- Wow, what's that?"'

The building gets a little warm.

"It's always hot in here -- I go outside in 110 degree weather to cool off," he said. "I learned a long time ago that heat is a relative term." His propane forge heats to 2,500 degrees -- but his coal forge is his pride and joy. That can get up to 4,000 degrees.

"That's where the saying, Too many irons in the fire' comes from -- if you've got too much going on, you can't control it and you can destroy your work.

Another familiar saying with additional meaning to Yeary? "Strike while the iron is hot."

"Beating cold steel just wears me out," he said.

The most massive job he ever did? A 360-foot handrail at Gilley's nightclub in Dallas that took 25,000 pounds of steel and 2,000 rivets. His most elaborate project to date? A $60,000 two-panel gate that spans a 20-foot opening at a Highland Park home and weighs two tons.

He attributes its perfect balance to ancient technology.

"A cat could lean into it and open it. And it hasn't moved a 64th of an inch out of line since I put it in the ground," he said.

True blacksmithing -- not welding fabrication, horseshoeing or weaponmaking -- is an ancient art. As long as there's been steel, people have been figuring out how to work it. So where do you find a 125-pound hammer that stopped being used 100 years ago?

"Blacksmith tools are difficult to find -- I make my own and then I have a tool forever," he said.

For Yeary, blacksmithing is more than a job. It's a calling.

"I'm a tamer of the fire and the elements," he said. "I was born for this. I don't have to question why I'm here -- I know. I feel like I'm making the world a bit better by my artwork and the smiles on people's faces. The best part is the look on the customer's face when I hand it to them. Getting paid is necessary to run a business and stay alive, but the look on the customer's face is the reason I do my work," he said.

"Sometimes I think God gets sad and he comes to my shop and we play. Sometimes I'm so surprised -- I don't feel like I've accomplished something, I just get to see it first.

"My artwork is my way of witnessing -- this is a craft I've been given. When you see a piece of artwork, that talent comes from God. I win again -- it's my way of witnessing," he said. "That's why I'm so d--- happy!"

Making metal bend to his will is just what he loves to do.

"If I had no need for money, I'd still be doing this," he said. "I feel like I'm playing all the time -- I feel like the fun police are going to come to my door any second and tell me I've got to go get a job."

Never married, no kids -- Yeary finds his legacy in his creation.

"In 1,000 years, people will still be saying my name. This is more or less my legacy," he said. Life's forge

Yeary was born and raised in Fort Stockton, where his mother taught school and his father was an engineer for the highway department.

Along the way, he has worked in a number of professions -- including gas pipeline work and serving as a scuba dive operations director in Honduras. Always, his best path to learning has been hands-on.

"If I can see it done or touch it, I can learn it a thousand times faster than if I see it in a book," he said.

Now 51, Yeary's been tested in life's forge.

He's had his neck broken in a car wreck, had a steer stomp on his face at a rodeo in Pampa. He hit a feral hog while going full speed on a motorcycle.

And for a guy who got his eye shot out when a friend accidentally shot him in the face with a crossbow, Yeary's pretty cheerful about the whole thing.

"You know how your mom always says, Don't be doing stupid stuff, somebody could lose an eye?' It just happened," he said.

And yes, as might be expected, he wears his difference with panache -- a classy woven leather eyepatch -- and he found the silver lining to that particular cloud."I could have chosen to be sad or resentful, but I chose to go forward, I chose to forgive. I don't know how many people I helped when they saw that losing an eye wasn't that big a deal to me.

"And it actually helped out my work -- I'm right-handed and I can look something and tell you in a heartbeat, at a glance, if it's straight, level, square, crooked, bent out or out of line."

A persistent optimist, he looks on the bright side -- with his good eye.

"Life is interesting -- you take as much fun as you can. Every day is a blessing, every day is an adventure," he said.

"How could I possibly have a bad day with all these things going right in my life? I don't have a right to have a bad day."

Now semi-famous for its slogan, the Milford welcome sign bears the city's very unofficial motto: "A town of about 700 friendly people. And three or four old grouches."

If you're looking for the grouches, don't bother looking at Yeary, who moved to town in January and works his fiery craft in the shadow of Milford's sole high-rise -- the city's pale blue water tower -- across the street from the postage stamp-sized U.S. Post Office.

"If the water tower fell over, it would crush my building. I've got the best landmark in town," he said.

"I love this little town -- everybody knows everybody, everybody's friendly. Very Norman Rockwell," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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