BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. – Ben Dinsmore was a young sailor stationed in San Francisco when he saw a man working leather at Fisherman’s Wharf in the 1980s. It was the day Dinsmore was inspired to make leather himself, which he he’s been doing for over 40 years.
“He was fashioning a belt and I was just amazed at the way he was shaping it,” Dinsmore said on Saturday, speaking from his booth at the Heritage Festival in Blountville. “Then I’ve learned over the years how to do this…Take a piece of cowhide and put a picture on it, do something else with it – that really appeals to me.”
After serving eight years in the Navy, Dinsmore, who is originally from Surgoinsville, Tennessee, but lives in Kingsport, became a truck driver. Now the 64-year-old retiree is on the vendor circuit at fairs, festivals and just about anywhere he can pitch his twin-awning tent filled with handmade leather goodies he makes and sells under the name from Hillbilly Ben’s Leatherworx.
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From book covers and bibles to knives, belts, guitar straps and even small treasure chests and jewelry boxes, Hillbilly Ben – as it’s called – offers a little something for everyone. . Fulfilling around 200 custom orders a year, Dinsmore never makes two copies of the same item.
“I could do something similar, but it’s going to be different,” Dinsmore said. “Either way.”
Particularly focused on the intricacies of his craft, those fine little details that make a design stand out, Dinsmore became a bit of a perfectionist in his craft, never settling for anything less than brilliant.
“If I do something and it’s not right, it doesn’t leave the store,” Dinsmore said. “If it’s something I wouldn’t want, I wouldn’t want to pay money, I’m not letting it out. It’s just my personal standard.
Over the past two years, with most gatherings canceled due to the pandemic, Dinsmore has taken comfort in his work.
“It’s my therapy,” Dinsmore said. “My back room is my shop, and if I’m having a bad day or not feeling well, I come in, close the door and can work the leather and close the world.”
Saturday was Dinsmore’s first time at the Blountville Heritage Festival, which is hosted by the Sullivan County Department of Archives and Tourism and is just as dedicated to the rich history of the county seat as it is to the regional artisans that line the street to sell handmade items and goods.
“People love quality (of handmade products),” Dinsmore said. “You can go to Walmart and buy a cheap knife, and it might last you a week or two, but you get what you pay for. If you want handmade things, you’re going to pay more.
Dinsmore said he is in fairly good health for his age and has no plans to quit his hobby, a labor of love, anytime soon.
“I see this going on for several years,” Dinsmore said. “The only problem I have with it is arthritis, but I do it anyway.”