Blacksmith Business

Home  -  Business Index


Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands
- From "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow



The most indispensable trade was the blacksmith.  In his special work the farmer, however ingenious, could not compete.  In general, he had reached what then passed for  middle life with experience in several tasks in various stages of development.  While the shoeing of horses and to some extent of oxen constituted, perhaps, the bulk of his work during the winter, the summer brought with it the making of ploughs (or their sharpening), harrows, cultivators, hoes, scythes, rakes, and tools used in field or garden.  He must not only have acquired a fixed skill (something that would always stand him in stead) but must be able to work rapidly.

When something went wrong with a prairie plough leaving men and oxen idle, or with a threshing machine where from ten to fifteen men and almost as many horses were left for the time with nothing to do, the blacksmith was expected to drop everything else and without regard to meals, sleep, or rest, to persevere until his task was done.  This was the essence of his unconscious contract with his customers and he must keep it; if there was one thing that the industrial leader in a Pioneer community dreaded, more than another, it was that men assembled for a given task should be left idle while daylight and good weather were running.

The neighborhood that commanded the services of a really expert and artistic blacksmith could count itself fortunate.  His trade was naturally the primary attraction, but it meant even more to have a smith who was really interested in the people who were his constituents and had their own peculiar interests.  His shop was the recognized meeting place, a social center, even more important than the country store.  It was the resort of boys of all ages, the older of whom were often gratified in their desire to blow the bellows or even to handle that mysterious tool, the great sledge, when two red hot  heavy bars of iron were to be cut or welded, or others were to be split into strips.  The passing matron or school girl looked in through the open door with a sort of awe; so that the blacksmith who either had, or might develop, the qualities of the curmudgeon was destined to a brief career or absolute failure and might just as well make up his mind to move.

It was, however, as the meeting place of an ever ready debating society for religious questions that the smithy was most distinguished.  There, the fate of those mighty and universal questions, such as baptism, infant baptism, free will, foreordination, election, predestination, the final perseverance of the saints (what this common though cryptic phrase might mean) were constantly under discussion.  The smith literally earned his living by the sweat of his brow, but a day was never more than a day even if prolonged far into the night.  No true smith could resist the challenge to talk on these subjects, then the primary problems of surrounding humanity.  He was nearly always active sometimes even unctuous in the Wednesday night prayer meeting, or in the Sunday class meeting, so that in those historic days nobody even so much as thought it among possibilities that there could be an un-devout blacksmith.  Curiously enough, in many villages the number of blacksmiths who derived from Huguenot or Scotch-Irish origins was out of proportion to the representatives of their races and sects in the communities where, finding no representative churches of their own, they had been thrown into association with the Methodists and Baptists.  Perhaps the very rigidity of their hereditary ultra-Protestantism made them more active in the bodies with which they had affiliated from necessity.

No man, even in the busy life of his neighborhood, was more industrious than the smith.  he began his work early in the morning, perhaps by five o'clock in summer, making stock against his daily or other needs.  He fashioned horseshoes from the bar, made his own nails, bolts, nuts, spikes, and the other articles since standardized on machines.  No piece of iron or steel, however small or apparently useless, was cast aside if malleable, because all were material for his bellows, anvil, hammer, and strong right arm.  If castoff articles were brought to him for making over he did his work with whatever skill he possessed, separating or uniting, as the arcane of his craft permitted; if it was a superfluity in the hands of owner, finder, or collector, he would take it in payment for work, or even in the time of severe money stringency would pay for it in cash.

A thousand miles from an ore-bank, or a rolling-mill, nothing that could be shaped on the anvil must be lost or neglected; he would turn all these to the most curious account whether for his customer or himself.  He would fashion an old scythe into a corn-cutter (just the right thing in weight or quality); make a worn out file into a butcher knife; transform the steel in a heavy awkward hoe into something light, fitted to the touch of man or boy (it sometimes seemed that he had a peculiar genius for making life easier for the growing  lad who was hard pressed with work and premature responsibilities); or by a touch little short of magical, he would turn into a thing of use and beauty a ploughshare that some faraway workman had bungled.

No man in any Pioneer category was more really trusted than the blacksmith.  his nature united with his trade to make him as nearly strictly honest as men can be.  Other men, the carpenter, the shoemaker, the weaver, the tinker, or the storekeeper, might be suspect, and the customer could go somewhere else; but the blacksmith was the destined monopolist of a neighborhood, so that while he held his place there was little chance to question his position or his probity.  While seldom a leader in matters of high public import, he was knowing to everything that was going on.

Taken all in all, the blacksmith was a fine figure in the Pioneer life, as indeed he had been in his association with the yeoman during the preceding five hundred years.  His character and its peculiar traits have been overlaid, though it is not possible even under the lava -like inclusions of the factory system entirely to hid him from view.

If I may seem to have lingered over this peculiar figure it is because he represented in himself the traditions and achievements of the smith from the days when he was limned by Homer down through medieval times and into modern literature, and because by reason of his intrinsic character he belonged to an age that has now departed forever.