Questions about Blacksmithing
You’re right, blacksmiths are still around – in fact, there’s a revival going on in artisan crafts, including blacksmithing. The Northwest Blacksmithing Association, of which I’m a member, is increasing in numbers every year. Blacksmiths today are doing very cool stuff – gates and sculpture and so on. But it’s about ornamental art now, instead of survival.
The Last of the Blacksmiths is about nineteenth century blacksmiths – an entirely different class. Blacksmiths used to be the lifeblood of human society – if you didn’t have a blacksmith to turn to for farming tools and cooking pots, to repair the wheel on your wagon or make chain and knives, you were out of luck. The title reflects how that way of life – the artisan crafts and apprentice system – virtually vanished by the early twentieth century.
When I began this project, I thought blacksmiths shoed horses. Actually, those are farriers. At first, I thought I could research by reading books, but I couldn’t relate. I couldn’t picture it – we’re so detached from the time before machines, when things were made by hand. So I took a beginning blacksmithing class at Old West Forge, four solid days at the anvil. By the second day, my right forearm was so sore I could hardly lift a glass of beer to my lips. Blacksmithing, like the other artisan crafts, is taught by demonstration. That’s why there were apprentices, journeymen, and masters. It wasn’t book learning – it was learning by doing. I made a few tools and fireplace pokers, but it was nothing compared to the toil of ten to twelve hour days six days a week. I began to realize that if the rug were pulled out from under us – if we didn’t have electricity and petroleum to run our machines– we would be hard-pressed to survive.
It’s only been a few hundred years since industrialization gained a firm foothold. When it comes to relating to nineteenth century characters, the veil of history is thinner than we think. The pace of change was staggering back then, too—an explosion of technology was taking place, new inventions every day. The canal system of travel, so arduous to build, was obsolete within a few decades due to the railroads. With the telegraph uncoiled between the U.S. and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, it became possible to send messages instantly when it used to take weeks and even months. Our life is simply a continuation of their frenetic pace of change, and we never know what’s around the next bend.
The main character of The Last of the Blacksmiths immigrated to the U.S. to apprentice as a blacksmith? Why didn’t he just apprentice in Germany?
Lots of things were happening in nineteenth century Europe, including the growth of factories in the cities, but the primary reason blacksmiths left was due to a rise in population. Two or three blacksmiths per village were too many — no one could make a living. In America, on the other hand, there was huge demand – new people arriving in the country by the thousands, the farmers needing farm tools and axes to clear the land. Plus, most immigrants who arrived were in the market for a wagon or conveyance to head west.
Your protagonist was a blacksmith in a wagon-making shop. How is that different from other blacksmiths?
The village blacksmith would do anything and everything related to metal—farm tools, knives, shoeing horses, etc. Wagon-making shops had specialized work for blacksmiths. Usually, the shops were divided into four different departments – woodworking, upholstery, painting and blacksmithing. The blacksmiths made the lamp brackets and gearing and iron tires –anything to do with the metal fittings on a coach or wagon. And there was a huge demand — there were as many types of wagons and carriages in those days as there are trucks and cars today. Some of our modern cars even have old carriage names – cabriolet and victoria and brougham.
That’s a good one, something like Dr. Seuss’s “a person’s a person no matter how small”? In our society, we tend to focus on celebrities, on those who rose to the top, who are winning the gold medal or who gained the greatest wealth and power. My novel is about salt-of-the-earth people – immigrant stock from whom most of us are descended. We owe as much to their work in building this country as we do to those who floated to the top and skimmed off the cream. The protagonist in my novel invests his life in an artisan-style culture – a small family-run business. By the end of his life, blacksmithing was no longer a viable profession and cars were taking over the horse-drawn carriage businesses. His life was eclipsed by the next generation, just as ours will be. In the end, winning or losing doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of what constitutes a life well-lived.