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Blacksmithing – More Than Just Horseshoes
June 2011 - A trip to historic Steele City, Nebraska, 12 miles SE of Fairbury is a bit like time-travel. Evidence of early pioneer life is still very visible in this tiny village in the Little Blue River valley, not far from the Oregon Trail. Historic buildings dot the landscape, trains blow their whistles as they pass by on tracks first laid in the 1850s, and spring water still flows, spilling perpetually into tanks once used as the principle water source for residents and their livestock.
During the summer months, the historic stone blacksmith shop becomes a gathering place for folks of all ages who enjoy the ancient art of working with metal. Visitors have the chance to not only learn about the history of blacksmithing, but also get hands-on experience and perhaps take home a unique, hand-crafted item, which they helped to create.
I was invited to visit the blacksmith shop on a Saturday morning in June where members of the Prairie Blacksmith’s Association were gathering to share stories and techniques. A thin ribbon of coal smoke wafted lazily from the chimney as the fire was stoked for the day’s activities. Once inside, I was given a tour of the shop and briefed on the tools of the trade. It was nearly lunch time, so a trip to the Salty Dog for a pork burger and a cold beer was the first order of business.
Around the table, members shared stories of their own blacksmithing experiences and what inspired them to learn the craft. Some had relatives who were metal workers, some were history buffs. Some were there to pursue a dream they have had since seeing their first demonstration as a child. No matter what brought them all together, one thing they all had in common: they loved the challenge of creating something useful, artistic and unique, from three basic ingredients: metal, fire and muscle.
Hanging by nails on the posts were the handyworks of those who have spent time in the shop over the years – there were a variety of items from decorative hooks, tools and of course, horseshoes. But the thing that caught my eye – a steak hook. My mouth was watering at the prospect of a juicy steak dangling from this most basic of tools and before I knew it, I was forging and hammering metal, under the watchful instruction of my new mentors. It was definitely a group effort, each contributing a special skill to create my new tool, artfully handcrafted, unlike any other!
What started out as a 20-minute visit (with a few snapshots) turned into an afternoon of pure, simple enjoyment – I learned about our rich history, acquired a new skill and scored a wicked, new cooking tool. But perhaps the most valuable take away from my blacksmithing experience was the forging of new friendships!
If you are looking for a family-friendly, educational and fun experience, I highly recommend spending part of your day with the PBA members in “the shop”.
The Blacksmithing Renaissance
Throughout history, the blacksmith played a vital role in his community. His ability to create and repair tools, hardware, utensils and decorative ironwork was a necessary element in every field of human endeavor. The industrial revolution and subsequent technological advances eliminated the blacksmith's role in everyday life and industry. He was replaced by the welder, the machinist, and the technology of modern mass production. Anvils, forges and hand tools become rusty from disuse. A few aging men carried on the centuries-old traditions, often taking their knowledge to the grave.
The late 1960's brought to many people a new awareness of the value of the old ways. Working independently , many sought to learn the all-but-forgotten crafts, including blacksmithing. Forges, long cold were relit; the smell of coal smoke again drifted through the American neighborhoods as a new generation of smiths polished their anvils with hot steel and hammer blows.
In 1973, a small group of these new smiths met in Lumpkin, Georgia and formed the Artist Blacksmiths Association of North America. As the name implies, the organization's primary focus was on traditional and contemporary artistic uses of forged iron. Slowly the organization grew until it emerged as a major force in American crafts.
ABANA continues to grow, and to spread information about ironwork to schools, architects, designers and builders. Blacksmithing is a part of the curriculum of a growing number of universities, art schools and craft centers.
ABANA has been recognizing regional chapters to foster more frequent meetings of interested ironworkers. Nebraska and its surrounding states had a rich heritage of agricultural blacksmithing. The prairie smiths were indispensable members of pioneer communities, but like their fellows in other areas, they too were replaced by modern technology.
But on the plains, as in other parts of the country a rekindling of interest has occurred, fostered by workshops and meetings of interested smiths. In 1985 the Prairie Blacksmiths Association (PBA) was formed to promote the craft of blacksmithing in Nebraska and surrounding states. In 1986 the PBA became a regional chapter of ABANA. PBA presently has meetings every other month with members and guests sharing techniques and ideas. PBA smiths demonstrate blacksmithing at numerous festivals and events throughout the state. An annual two day meeting is held with a nationally known blacksmith demonstrating old and new blacksmithing techniques.1
Prairie Blacksmith's Association
The PBA was established in 1985 by a group of Nebraska smiths looking for ways to meet others with an interest in ironwork, to share information and techniques, and to promote the craft of blacksmithing. It has become a regional chapter of ABANA and maintains a yearly calendar of meeting, events and demonstrations.
PBA members range from beginning hobbyist smiths through professional blacksmiths, farriers, welders, and machinists. PBA welcomes anyone with interest in the craft, whatever the level of his or her skills.
PBA holds at least 6 meetings each year at various locations around the state. Programs include workshop instruction, individual forge work, artistic design, and show and tell demonstrations. PBA is building a library of instructional materials for member use. The annual meeting usually has a demonstration by a nationally known blacksmith. Newsletters with upcoming event notices; how-to articles; blacksmithing tips and techniques; and PBA news are published regularly.
PBA member smiths provide demonstrations for schools, fairs, community celebrations, and other activities throughout the state to promote public interest and understanding of blacksmithing.
You are invited to become a PBA member by submitting the application form. Then you are encouraged to come learn blacksmithing skills with hands-on experience of the craft.
1 Prairie Blacksmith's Association
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