Blacksmithing, Then and Now

It is believed that blacksmithing began sometime between 6,000 and 3,300 years ago, and that the first people to forge iron into useful implements may have been Egyptians. It was not long before such a valuable craft would spread to Greece, Eastern Europe, and later to Western Europe and Great Britain. The first Europeans to explore and later settle the New World brought the craft of blacksmithing with them to America’s shores.

Hanford Mills Museum

Although blacksmithing has been practiced for a very long time, there was a period during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution when it was no longer necessary to have people do the work that could be accomplished by machines. Sadly, the art and craft of blacksmithing seemed destined for extinction. In the last several decades, however, blacksmithing has re-emerged as a means to produce works of art and beautifully handcrafted ironware.

Hanford Mills Museum, located in the Delaware County hamlet of East Meredith, is a place where blacksmithing was kept alive through the industrial period, and where it remains alive and well in the 21st century. In 1860, David Josiah Hanford, an enterprising young carpenter, took a risk and purchased a sawmill in East Meredith, that bears his name to this day. Starting out small, Mr. Hanford added to and improved upon the original sawmill. Within 30 years, by the1890s, the mill had become a place where lumber was produced, grain was ground, and farm implements, seed and hardware could be purchased. In addition, the mill produced wooden milk crates and other wooden boxes for the dairy industry.

During the 1890s, the business of running the many facets of the mill fell to David’s two sons, Horace and Will. In 1894 or ’95, the boys built a small shed on the premises to house a blacksmith shop. By this time the demand for wooden boxes was high, and many of the boxes that were produced were wrapped with metal bands to strengthen them. These early wooden boxes also had “iron” handles on them. Many of the boxes manufactured at the mill were branded with the name of the dairy that purchased them. The branding and banding of boxes, as well as the bending of the iron handles, took place in the blacksmith shop. The forge was also used when repairs at the mill were needed. The milling and wood-working operations carried out by the Hanfords required numerous water-powered and belt-driven machines, with the attendant gears, arbors (drive shafts) and pulleys. It is very likely that when a machine broke down a replacement part would be manufactured in the blacksmith shop.

Mr. Hanford’s first blacksmith shop was located on the bank of the millpond, across from the feed mill. It stood there from when it was built in the 1890s, until it was damaged by a flood in 1935. A replica of the shop was built in 1997, almost on the same spot as the original, but a little farther away from the feed mill. After the 1935 flood, the millpond was repaired to a slightly smaller size, and although the new blacksmith shop is still on the bank of the pond it is now a little farther away from the feed mill. Since water-powered mills were by necessity sited close to, or directly on, the banks of streams, floods often damaged these structures. On June 28, 2006, a flooded South Kortright Creek once again damaged the buildings and grounds at Hanford Mills. This time the blacksmith shop survived, but the ground in front of it was extensively eroded. Interestingly, the erosion revealed the remnants of the foundation of the original blacksmith shop. Its location, dimensions, etc., were recorded before the landscape was restored.

Visiting the blacksmith shop today one gets a sense of how the craft of blacksmithing was practiced from 1890 until 1935. The operational antique equipment in the shop includes a turn-of-the-century hand-cranked “Champion 400” air blower, made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This machine is used to create the air blast that allows the coal to burn with a high heat, thereby sufficiently heating the steel to be forged. The primary shop anvil is a 200 (plus) pound “Peter Wright” anvil, manufactured in England around 1910. The shop also contains an early blacksmith’s post drill, or drill press, and this, like the air blower, was also a hand-cranked affair. An essential tool to any shop was a vise, and this shop was no exception. A large, heavy blacksmith vise, aka post vise, completes the arsenal of heavy shop tools. Assorted tongs, hammers, chisels, punches, hacksaws, files, and other tools of the trade, round out the smith’s tool kit. And useful for forging smaller items, a smaller anvil, known as a bickern, bick, bick anvil or stake anvil, can also be found in the shop.

Two large branding irons from an earlier ear remain in the shop. To get a good look at some reproductions of branded boxes, one need only cross the narrow dirt road in front of the blacksmith shop, walk into and through the back of the feed mill, to where a railroad boxcar lies partially loaded with goods to be shipped from the mill. There, branded and banded boxes can be seen, along with other wooden manufactured products produced at the mill.

Over the years, since the blacksmith shop was restored in 1997, several blacksmiths have worked in the shop. Tres Loeffler (1997 to 1998), the first blacksmith, was involved in researching and building the shop that stands on the site today. Rick Brindle served from 1998 to 200; Charles Arney held the job in the early 2000s; and Patrick Grossi took the helm from the early 2000s to 2006. During his time a Hanford Mills Museum, Patrick gave many workshops on basic blacksmithing, and did much to promote the craft. A former student of Patrick, the author is the current volunteer blacksmith.

Hanford Mills Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 5pm mid May through mid October, and on Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day. Special events occur throughout the year : Saw It (May), Independence Day (July), Antique Engine Jamboree (September), and the Millers Harvest Festival (October). An annual Ice Harvest takes place on the first Saturday in February.

The blacksmithing shop is usually open and operating on all special event days at the museum and the blacksmith can be seen tending the coal fire and working at the forge. During these times, one can experiences the sights, smells and sounds of a turn-of-the-century blacksmith shop. There is nothing as distinctive and memorable as the smell of an open coal fire, or the sound of an anvil ringing as a blacksmith forges steel.  Go to our video section to see the smithy at work !!

For more information visit www.hanfordmills.org or call (607) 278-5744 or 800-295-4992.
 

Related Articles

History of Lighting at Margaretville Nov. 7

Antique Engine Jamboree & Powerfest at Hanford Mills Museum

Upcoming Events for Woodchuck Lodge

Old-Fashioned Photography Workshop