The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny
arms are strong as iron bands.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “The Village Blacksmith”
It is believed that Albert Einstein once said, “Life is a journey with problems to solve, lessons to learn, but most of all experiences to enjoy.” For David “Skinner” Collins, that saying couldn’t be truer. Anxious to get started, Skinner began his life’s journey two months early. At two pounds six ounces, he fit on the palm of his father’s hand. “I was the first male and the first grandchild on both sides of the family. So, I have the oldest child syndrome. . .” Skinner was raised by his German grandmother, who gave him this explanation for his coming early, “You’ve always done this, you just started early doing things before people thought you were supposed to be doing it and you did it faster . . . if anyone tried to help you, you’d throw a fit — you did it yourself!” Skinner chuckles as he expresses, “I really have done that all my life, and through good guidance from my grandmother. She spoke clear. She didn’t beat around the bush; you never had to guess what she was thinking because she’d tell you before you wanted to know anyway. It’s a trait that I’ve taken on as well. In that process, I lived all my dreams by the time I was 29 — and I’ve been dreaming ever since.”
Skinner was born on Manitoulin Island into the Scottish clan Cranstoune, and was raised on a 187-acre farm just outside Sault Ste. Marie in a place called Bar River. “We grew all our own food; we had our own animals. We were known for being able to butcher anything, and in fact, people joked that ‘when the Collins’ butchered a pig, they used everything including the squeal.’ That was the way I was raised. If you butcher an animal, that animal is giving its life for you; you use it all — even the hides. I learned how to do all that at a very young age. It was just a part of life at that time.” Although everyone around them had furnaces, electricity, and indoor plumbing, Grandma Collins would have ‘none of it.’ “I’ve lived this long without it — I don’t need it now.” Skinner agreed, “And we didn’t. Did we miss anything? Not at all!”
At the age of six, Skinner was given a neck yoke to carry water from a nearby spring-fed river for the house and milk pens. “We had to work if we were going to live. Period. So, you split wood, and you knew how to use an axe and how to fell a tree by the time you were six. When I was nine, I went to work for a neighbor farmer and started shoeing horses. By the time I was eleven, I was doing a lot of things that most kids now at 20 years old don’t do. But the thing is, is that it was a different time and place.” Young Skinner was also a mischievous kid who had fun with friends; he learned to work hard and play hard, he learned to ask questions and solve problems, he learned to appreciate nature and to serve others. All of which would prepare him to dream big and achieve big.
“When I was eleven years old, I sat under a tree with a friend of mine, and we got to talking about what we’d really like to do — if there were specific things — what were the top three. I’d watched some black and white movies, so I wanted to be on a wagon train, and I’d like to set a world’s record, and maybe be a performer too.” The goals were spoken, the universe complied, and Skinner grabbed hold with both hands — quite literally — riding, driving, and swinging his way through some pretty amazing adventures!
What’s in a name?
When Skinner was 17, he discovered that mules were much more efficient than horses and began trekking all over the country on the back of them. On one quick jaunt, while in Virginia, he rode a mule cross-country over a mountain faster than a truck. When the rest of his group arrived they started calling him ‘Mule’, which developed into ‘Mule Skinner’, which two weeks later was shortened to just ‘Skinner’ and the name stuck.
Driving Stakes, Clowning Around, and Riding Horses
Skinner’s father worked on the freighters on the Great Lakes, worked in a steel mill, and was a steeplechase jockey. He received his track license with Willie Shoemaker, who is recognized as the most successful jockey in racing history. Skinner shared, “When it came time to working a particular horse on the track — Willie said that my dad could get the horse to do what they needed it to do. He was a natural at it, which I picked up from him . . . horses are my business.” Always working towards his three grand goals; Skinner thought, “. . . maybe I’ll ride a fast horse and set a record. As far as performing, maybe I’ll perform on horses, [but] to be on a wagon train in the 20th century — maybe not — so I brushed it off.”
Skinner had seen a few things in his life, but one thing he hadn’t seen was a circus — that is until he joined one! “I joined the circus to stretch canvas and drive stakes; fifteen months later, I was number three in the top ten buffoon clowns in North America.” How the heck did that happen you ask? Skinner explained, “One of the old clowns thought I’d make a good clown. I turned him down, but he suckered me into a routine. He was doing a vaudeville routine that took two people — I knew the other part of it, so he had me do it — it was his proof that I would make a good clown. I said no, but the owner of the circus was right behind me . . .
and I couldn’t have my other job unless I was a clown, so that was the end of that.” Skinner also performed as one of the top ten aerial stunt clowns in the United States. “I swung on a quadruple trapeze that was 47 feet off the ground.”
Skinner stayed on with the ‘big’ circus for four years before going home and producing his own Circus: Smiles International, the Biggest Little Show on Earth. “It was connected to the educational system in Canada . . . and I taught high school and college students all aspects of theatrical production. I had jugglers, tumblers, ventriloquists, slack wire walkers, and illusionists. In the summer we would have workshops in the park . . . and then the last Saturday of the month we’d come together, and everybody got to perform and entertain the whole town.” The program was eventually picked up by the Canadian Children’s Workshop Theatre, an organization that awarded grants to anything that promoted the arts in Canada. As part of his show, Skinner also had a ventriloquist act with his ‘Muppet’ friend Oscar Sledge, the world’s only talking chimpanzee. Together the two of them traveled the country educating children, performing, and raising money for those in need. For Skinner, the best part of his circus was giving students, who may never have performed, the opportunity. “When you get into the performing business, it gives you a social structure that allows you to be open with people and understand people. You can see things in a little different light. So, it was good for them to come out of their shells, and when they did, their other careers took off.”
After he closed his show, he went back to the horse business and blacksmithing. “Not knowing where it was going, I started beating steel. . .” He took a small break to return to performing — this time with horses. Colonel Trevor Bale, an honored trainer with Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School that features the Lipizzaner horses, and a friend of Skinner’s whom he met while with the circus, found Skinner working in Michigan. The Colonel needed some help with one of his horses and knew of Skinner’s reputation of getting them to do what they needed to do. “The next thing you know, I rode for 2 ½ years with the Imperial Lipizzaner Stallions as a primary rider. So, I actually did make it as a horse performer, which was great.” Become a performer. Check.
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep those ‘wagons’ rollin’!
Remember the part where Skinner said he didn’t know where beating steel would go? Well, being a dang good blacksmith paved the way for many an experience — including the one dream he thought he’d have to set aside — joining a wagon train.
As a blacksmith, Skinner traveled the country, worked for the national parks (he was the sole blacksmith on the rim of the Grand Canyon for 3 ½ years), and rode everywhere he could on the back of a mule. “I rode all the Blue Ridge and the Smokies, and 200 miles short of the full Appalachians, and twice from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, and then I came west. I rode on a road over Virginia and arrived in Livingston, Montana . . . and rebuilt five of the Yellowstone Stage Coaches, and then the Western part of my life started.”
While in Yellowstone, Skinner drove coaches and cooked for the Lake Hotel and a dozen others. Skinner’s knowledge across various lines of work, combined with his love for history, made him the go-to person for big movie shoots and a few reality shows. He drove carriages and helped locate historical props. “History becomes our future. It really does. And the more you know of history, the more you know of the future — it becomes a wonderful thing. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve learned the why and how and where it came from.”
The wagon train also brought Skinner to Utah and the Heber Valley. “I was in Mackinac Island — a horse-powered island. I was driving a horse-drawn taxi, and I picked up some recruiters from Deer Valley . . . we got to talking, and they hired me to cook for them.” Skinner didn’t know anything about Deer Valley, Heber City, or Utah, but he decided to come down and work for a season. When the season ended, Skinner was within hours of leaving when a gentleman from Idaho asked him to represent them on the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. In the summer of 1992, Skinner rode from Independence to Oregon City with a four-hitch of mules. Every subsequent summer for the next seven years, he would leave for 3-5 months on another wagon train. Some were reenactments where companies would sponsor them, while others were for Bicentennial or Centennial celebrations. Most wagon trains had support vehicles, and they would set up large tent encampments; however, some did not. “We did the Blaine County Freight Run, which was a blast! Those trails hadn’t been traveled for sixty years; it was what we called a fend-for-yourself wagon train. There were no support vehicles. You either put it on your horse or in your wagon, or you didn’t bring it.” This wasn’t a problem for Skinner; he was used to being a one-man operation.
The two people you don’t mess with on a wagon train are the blacksmith and the cook. Skinner generally held both positions for each wagon train he was on. He occasionally acted as the medic too. He was astute, proficient, quick, precise, and well-respected by those on the trail and those who worked with or sponsored the wagon trains. A great example of this was Henry Weinhard’s Beer, who was a major sponsor of the Oregon Trail. They would bring in groups of people each week; they had their own horses, but the horses needed to be shod — of course, they went straight to Skinner. “I would charge them $100 per horse and a case of Henry Weinhard’s Beer. They said fine. Well, after three weeks of this, they quit giving me cases of beer. What they did was call their delivery people when the wagon train was close to them, and the delivery truck would show up and load the back end of one of our horse trailers — just load it! Two-thirds of the train were mule guys, and they said if you’re getting the beer, we’ll get the coolers! That was fun.”
Skinner represented Wasatch County for the Utah Centennial in a wagon train that used big teams of mules and antique wagons. There were 109 wagons that started the trek from Logan to Cedar City; Wasatch County was number 100. Only seven wagons completed the trail from start to finish. Skinner’s wagon was one of them; he also received recognition as the most authentic wagon. The day after the wagon train pulled in, Wasatch County erected the statue of William Madison Wall. Skinner shared this interesting tidbit of Heber Valley history; during the rededication of the park, he was asked to help place a time capsule at the base of the statue.
Skinner has traveled 40,000+ miles in the saddle; and well over 20,000 miles on wagon trains. It is fitting that Skinner’s first time arriving in the Salt Lake Valley was by wagon. Be on a wagon train. Check, check, and double-check.
Dreams and Everything in Between
To record all that Skinner has experienced would take volumes of tomes. In a nutshell, it would be accurate to state that the fantasy world we all escape to through books, movies, plays, etc. has been Skinner’s world: from living in a 7’X7’ lean-to for a year-and-a-half that he built in the side of a Virginian mountain to fixing wheels and axels for the Amish to designing stages and auditoriums; from holding process patents on steel for mules and Jackasses to cooking for some of the largest ranches in the country and Bear Ships in AK, to running a Chuck Wagon at Soldier Hollow during the 2001 World Games to setting up a blacksmith shop in Melvin Moulton’s old Smithy to sitting for local artist Robert Duncan; from growing a magnificent 7 ½ inch mustache to giving up pants for a comfortable Kilt to tracing his Scottish and Irish ancestors back to the 15th and 11th centuries to being able to trace equine genetic history back to the time of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra to . . . well you get the picture. For Skinner — it’s all about the ‘Can Do’ attitude. When he shares his life stories with others, it is not to brag or boast; it’s about connecting with people and helping them open up about their experiences. It’s about showing others that they don’t just have to read about adventures; they can go out and live them.
Oh, and the dream to set a world record? Yep, he did that too. Skinner was hired to do a sideshow while in Michigan. As part of his act, he would break concrete blocks with his head — he says it was that or shove ice-picks in his head, swallow swords, or spit fire — all of which are in his repertoire. At this point, that statement should come as no surprise. Although he was only allowed to break 6” at a time, he wouldn’t be Skinner if he didn’t at least try to break more. He did. “I broke 14 ½ inches in one hit with my head in March of 1981.” Set a world record. Check.
What’s next for Skinner? “I just keep adventuring. I just take new challenges and do something different.” Skinner has lived, and keeps on living each day as if it was his last, and along the way, he chooses to share his stories and encourage others to share theirs. Having the courage to be open is probably one of the reasons Skinner makes friends everywhere he goes. Many of these friendships have developed into life-long treasured relationships.
One cannot sum up a life in a few pages; however, I believe this particular Muppet quote (appropriate because ‘Muppets’ right?) might do Skinner’s life justice. In the song “A Thankful Heart” from The Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooge and his entourage gently state: “Life is like a journey, who knows when it ends? Yes, and if you need to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends.”