Blacksmithing in Rural America

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The town blacksmith shop was a busy location throughout the year, but it felt especially welcoming on cold winter days, when heat from the glowing coals in the forge warmed the building. The rhythmical sound of hammering metal and the distinctive smell of burning charcoal identified his workshop.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, farming was done with the power of horses and the skills of a blacksmith were important to the local economy. The shop was a popular destination, to wait for repairs of equipment, have horses shod and hear the latest news.

A blacksmith was a skilled craftsman, who heated iron to shape it, using a forge, anvil, hammers, specialized tools and a tub of water. The forge was the hearth where iron was heated over clean burning coals. Large leather bellows were used to regulate the temperature of the forge, through piped air. A chimney pulled smoke up and out of the building.

The blacksmith's anvil was a large block of iron, mounted on a heavy timber post. It had a flat top and a pointed horn, for hammering and shaping the heated iron.


    A blacksmith used a variety of hammers, tongs, chisels and punches to create, repair, rivet or weld. With a vise and files, he refined the rough edges of his ironwork. The ability to shape iron, by heat and tools, has been a highly valued skill throughout history.

    By the early 1900s, an American blacksmith's work had grown to include repairing all types of manufactured, horse-drawn farm machinery, wagons, carriages and sleighs. He also sharpened plows, saws and other tools. For raw materials, the blacksmith ordered lengths of heavy iron and steel (iron with carbon), delivered to town by the railroad.

Farm families were gradually becoming able to purchase many more things locally, or through mail-order catalogs. Previously, a number of these items had been custom-made from iron by the town blacksmith. He could make utensils for use in a fireplace or on a stove, along with hinges, hooks, nuts and bolts, locks, latches, chains, braces, spikes, nails, drill bits, tools and many other necessary objects.

Even in a small shop, the blacksmith usually had a least one assistant to help him, as he heated and worked the iron. Several younger boys would often do the chores and errands. Blacksmithing was a skilled trade, learned through years of apprenticeship.

In some areas, the blacksmith did horseshoeing. In other towns, a farrier was a blacksmith, who specialized in the shoeing and care of horses. Blacksmiths could now purchase wooden kegs of ready-made, sized horseshoes, instead of individually fashioning them out of iron bar stock.

Many farm horses worked unshod in the fields. Horses that regularly hauled wagons on hard roads, worked on rugged terrain, or in icy conditions, had special horseshoes, created by the blacksmith to protect their hooves and give them better traction.

As farmers ordered new machinery from distant locations, the blacksmith adapted and became increasingly involved in the local repair of these items. The pressing need for someone to repair agricultural equipment kept him busy, during the seasons when farmers were at work in their fields and through the winter months.

Some farmers bought small, portable forges and did their own minor blacksmithing and parts repair. For major work, they continued to bring broken equipment into town. They waited for the blacksmith to repair it on the spot, or left a piece of machinery at his shop.

When using horses for farming and transportation came to an end, it forever changed the blacksmith's role in the community. The traditional, small town blacksmith's shop gradually went out of business, or evolved into the first automobile repair shops and dealerships, as the horsepower of mechanical engines replaced the power of horses.

 

Blacksmith and shop at the John Deere historic site

in Grand Detour, Illinois.

© Carolyn Splear Pratt