From the dawn of the Iron Age through the 19th century, the blacksmith trade grew in demand in tandem with the rise of agriculture and built civilization. The importance of the blacksmith through all those eons can’t be overstated. His place in industrializing society seemed permanently assured.
But then, something happened: machines appeared. In Appalachia, as everywhere else, machines began to produce items that were formerly made by the blacksmith. At first it was the simple things: nails, hooks, fence rods. In time, more complex products were machine-crafted, such as hinges and barbed wire, and eventually automobiles and farm vehicles. The smithy simply couldn’t compete with the economics of machine-crafted implements.
And yet the once ubiquitous trade of blacksmithing hasn’t disappeared altogether. Artisans such as Wind Chapman of Dahlonega, GA have kept the ancient skills alive. “From a Georgia farm boy, to an apprentice, to an Infantryman, to a starving journeyman, college teacher and papa, I have remained a blacksmith,” he says.
“There are times when I wake in the morning with the tag end of a dream still fresh in my memory. The jolting sound of the Fairbanks power hammer my Grandfar used at the railroad still visits me over all the years of my adult life.
“I wake up this morning just as I have every morning for the last thirteen years: coffee, oats, and perhaps bacon. The early autumn air only stirs for the passing of an owl seeking her roost for the day. The frosted grass on either side of the path illuminates my way to the forge this moonless morning.
“The tinder I gathered last week is already in the fire pot. The bucket of coal, hammers, tongs, and anvils are all there just where they were left. A struck match, flame, and then yellow-black smoke rises lazily over the bed of coal as it is not yet warm enough to go up the clay flue. Several moments later, a faint yellow finger erupts from the side of the dome of coal in the fire pot to be followed by several more yellow jets that evolve into a blast of heat that sends the smoke racing up the flue.
“Glenda needs a garden gate, and the small tourist items I make are all scrawled in soapstone on a piece of plate metal I picked up on my last trip to the landfill. Steady hammer blows are interrupted by the wheeze of the bellows and staccato rings that signify that detailed work is being performed.
“Finally, the day’s work is finished and done. Everything is in place for tomorrow. The grass is dry and the air now moves through the sourwood leaves that were the first to turn red. My thoughts turn to my brother blacksmiths here in these Appalachian mountains; also to Mark in Massachusetts, Jock in Pennsylvania, and Dave in Vermont.
“I know they all do different things after work, but once the fire is lit, we are no longer separated by distance or even time. We are all the same at work.”