Friday, April 25, 2003

Blacksmith Blog.

At the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Ill., a sign promised a blacksmithing demonstration that day, the day we visited, and we got one. The smith was an enormous man in overalls. A few years older than me, and bigger than me, and that’s saying something — taller and fatter, and the overall impression of size was augmented by his bushy, light-colored beard of near-ZZ Top proportions. When we arrived at the re-created smithy for a demonstration of his skills, he had just finished his lunch, and was conversing with his wife about what to fetch at the grocery store for dinner. She left and he took up his tools again.

The re-created smithy was, he said, the exact size of John Deere’s original Grand Detour shop, not including a latter addition, and presumably the original didn’t devote about a fifth of its space to a railed-in section where tourists stood. Otherwise, it was an evocative re-creation. A lot of iron & steel tools and implements on shelves, hanging on pegs, scattered around on various tables and benches. A bellows and a coal-burning furnace, which was glowing. A real anvil and some mean-looking, anvil-beating tools at hand.

Naturally, he was most concerned with impressing Lilly. Gets a lot of school groups, I figure, but she was the only child around at that moment, except for a sleeping baby off in a stroller in the corner. He held up a steel rod, maybe two feet long and half an inch in diameter. “See that?” he asked. He had his show down pat. “See the leaf in there, crying to get out? Can you hear it? ‘I want out! I want out!’ So I’ll see what I can do about that.”

He started pumping the bellows, explaining how it worked — something I didn’t catch about having two chambers and being a good way to create a fire a few thousand degrees Fahrenheit, provided you had a certain kind of first-rate coal from Pennsylvania or somewhere. The coal glowed. In went the steel rod. Out it came, glowing, over to the anvil. BANG! BANG! BANG!

Back to the coal fire. “A blacksmith has to know his timing,” he said. “The fire is so hot that the steel will melt if I leave it too long.” More priming the fire with the bellows. Out it came again. The flattened end of the rod was glowing even brighter. BANG! BANG! BANG!

Lilly was watching. Yuriko was watching. I was too, thinking what a lot of hard, hard work the 19th-century version of this job must have been. That century was full of hard jobs.

“Now, I want to give it some kind of leaf shape.” BANG! BANG! BANG! “I’ve made a lot of leaves over the years, and it used to bother me that they didn’t come out perfectly round. Then it occurred to me that God doesn’t make perfectly round leaves, so why should I?” The emerging leaf looked fairly round, if not perfectly.

Back to the fire. Another tool at the ready. Out of the fire. “Now I want to give it some veins.” TINK! TINK! TINK! “And, let’s see, a little curl on the tip.” TINK! TINK! TINK!

Satisfied with it, he took it glowing red leaf to a barrel of water. “This is how hot the metal is,” he noted, plunging it into the water. HSSSSSSSSSS. “If you touched it while it was hot, that sound would be your hand burning — if you could hear it over the screaming.”

The metal cooled remarkably fast in the cold water. He took it out and touched it. He invited us to touch it — it was cold and black, and looked like a curly steel leaf. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to keep it.

I asked him how he became a blacksmith, here in our time when smithery isn’t in great demand, and he said that he had learned to shoe horses that an ex-wife had owned, while his regular job was in the Air Force. After he retired from the Air Force, he found that the John Deere Historic Site needed a smith for demonstrations, and got the job. Best job he ever had, he said.

This was the highlight of the trip. It brings to mind another long-held notion of mine, one that has taken me a lot of places: This sort of thing — a minor museum or an educational display or a historic demonstration like this — isn’t just for children. In fact, it would be wasted on a lot of kids (but not Lilly, not yet anyway). No, an adult mind can and should sometimes wrap itself around a place like this.


Post a Comment

<< Home