When one thing becomes a modern marvel, an old thing drops away. So with blacksmiths. When Longfellow wrote about the smith working “under the spreading chestnut tree,” almost everyone had their own associations with blacksmiths to bring to the poem. Now we’d be hard-pressed to find a smith, and the chestnut trees were obliterated by a blight generations back. Furthermore, few read poetry these days and Longfellow has been out of favor for years. Our ideas of smiths are like myths, not of everyday life.
Automobiles, which do not need shoeing nor steel-rimmed wheels, were the big force that dissolved the blacksmith’s trade. When my great uncle graduated from high school, his father gave him a nice horse for a gift. Uncle Mike, to his father’s disgust, traded it for an automobile. Cars were the coming thing, and, as between any two generations, ideas of useful varied. People needed gasoline and new axles more that they needed a custom made shoe for a pony with hard to fit feet. Blacksmiths were not only about equines, but machine-made nails and hardware stores had already made inroads on the trade.
So smithing king of faded away. My grandfather bought machined shoes and then formed them to fit each horse with his own anvil and tools. The guy in the village who had the last shop by the livery stable went to the Shelburne Museum to be their smith. A fire house replaced the building. So by the mid 50s, Gramp was doing his own work. Later, pleasure horses came into play, and farriers – smiths expert in the field of horses’ feet – reemerged.
Iron was a very important substance to a village, a country. The Green Mountains have deposits of iron ore, and over time there have been active mines and smelters in Vermont. Bog iron was also utilized. Bog iron forms when water with iron particles flows into a bog which is acidic. Lumps of impure iron are formed; smelting and working the metal purifies it into strength and usefulness. Bog iron is somewhat of a renewable resource, but as you can imagine, it renews very slowly.
Ira Allen noted the bog iron deposits in Colchester; that was part of the reason he developed Winooski (which was part of Colchester at the time). You can think of that the next time your water runs rusty! Milton had some workable areas on “brown ore,” but I can’t tell you where.
Nails were one of the first important productions in the state. Settlement and home-building took many nails to hold it all together. Hand-forged one at a time it took a lot of human energy to acquire a stash, and they were valuable, Dad told me that sometimes in those days a first house would be burned so the nails could be retrieved for the next house. Wood was easy to come by then, and nails were difficult, so I suppose it made sense.
By the early 1800s machine-made nails were the thing. But since the smiths made dozens, if not hundreds of items used on the farm or in the household, they kept busy. Eventually some specialized. Knives were an example, and who doesn’t need knives? Up in Waterville, near where Dad grew up, Mann Knives were produced. At some point along the way, after collecting and studying old tools for many years, Dad started to make some of his own. I have a miniature woodworking plane he made me.
One day, some years ago, my brother Mike came over while Dad was rearranging his collection. They admired the tools, the craftsmanship involved. Dad handed Mike a knife to check out. “Wow!” said Mike. “That wasn’t made yesterday!” “No,” agreed Dad. “I finished it the day before yesterday!”