The blacksmith was a man-of-all-work

Posted by | March 8, 2011

As the horse is becoming less and less important, the blacksmith shop, so intimately connected with horses, is becoming rare.

There was a time when the shop shared with the general store the honor of being a loafers’ joint. Ostensibly the people who gathered at the blacksmith shop had come on business, but one was in no hurry to get his work done and leave the fascinating conversation that was always going on.

Blacksmith S. Combs of Puncheon Camp Creek, KY, undated but probably early 1930s.

Blacksmith S. Combs of Puncheon Camp Creek, KY, undated but probably early 1930s.

The blacksmith shop had its own peculiar odor. The coal used in the forge was a semi-powdered vile smelling stuff that made a heavy smoke. Soon the whole building was saturated with this odor and the smell of horses’ hoofs. This odor was as distinctive for the shop as was the odor of the smokehouse or the livery stable. No one seemed to mind it and probably was not aware of it.

The blacksmith was a man-of-all-work. His stock in trade was, of course, shoeing horses and welding iron; hence his name. There was still, a generation ago, something of the mediaeval wonder at the blacksmith’s art; not everyone could weld iron or do the many skillful things that the blacksmith found a part of the day’s work.

Most blacksmiths were pretty fair cabinet makers and could repair or even make any of the furniture in the average home. Making ‘V’ harrows was just an ordinary part of the art of working in iron.

Our Fidelity smith also ran a grist mill on certain days so that his shop could turn out nearly everything not grown on the farm or bought in the general store.

The small boy who went along with an older brother or his father to the shop was sometimes allowed the privilege of working the bellows. How big he felt as the horseshoe or bit of iron became nearly white with heat, while the flames danced among the cinders! Then the sport continued with the blacksmith’s hammering on the hot metal, while the sparks flew in all directions, sometimes on bare feet. How the iron sizzled when it was dropped into a tub of water to temper it.

All blacksmiths could “tickle the anvil,” that is, add a lot of grace notes by striking the anvil between beats on the iron being hammered. Nothing sounded any more like music of the numerous noises associated with old-fashioned ways of working. If one had not developed this sort of skill, he was still regarded as an amateur.

Our blacksmith was a sort of philosopher. I suppose that his daily associations with horses and mules gave him a goodly portion of horse sense that we all admire, whether it borne by man or beast.

He had the rare gift of laughter. Many a man would have cursed man and the earth for what he had drawn as his lot in life, but he laughed his weak little giggle and went ahead. When political or religious prejudice got others in a stew, the blacksmith laughed again, often clearing the atmosphere for the rest of us.

On Sunday morning at the country church, when some fine point of theology was about to disrupt the community, again he laughed, making some of the brethren feel sheepish for such outbursts of fervor (another name for temper). Who knows but that the philosophy of the toiler at the forge was just what we all needed. For some reason I remember this simple smith and have forgotten many another person who owned more and had more notice.

‘The Blacksmith Shop — Tidbits of Kentucky Folklore,’ by Dr. Gordon Wilson, Mountain Eagle (Whitesburg, KY): March 17, 1938

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