Have you met our blacksmiths? A blacksmith shapes and repairs things made of metal. In Walnut Hill, we have a blacksmith shop which uses tools the way smiths would have in the year 1875. This year there are eight smiths working in the shop throughout the week. Blacksmith Dave is our shop supervisor and has been working with the museum for over two summers now. You might also find him at the1900 Farm, print shop or even broom shop on occasion, but he spends most of his time around the forge. Let’s find out a little more about him and what he loves about working with metal.
Question. Where are you from originally?
Dave: I grew up on a farm near Lake Mills Iowa. It is in north central Iowa.
Question: Have you always been a blacksmith? How did you learn to use the tools in the shop?
Dave: Before working at the museum, I was a teacher. I taught students industrial arts–metal and wood working. I learned many of my skills in metalworking when I was in college and in my work as a teacher. You can also learn many things by talking to other smiths and by lots of practice. You learn by doing things.
Dave: First, I make sure that I have enough coal on hand for the fire, then I light the fire in the morning, and then begin working on a project for the day. I get to talk with many visitors throughout the day and tell them about being a blacksmith in 1875.
Question: The fire is really hot and there are sparks and steam—do you ever burn yourself?
Dave: I have not burned myself in the blacksmith shop, but I try to be really careful and work smart. You have to remember to not just grab a piece of metal without checking to see if it’s hot. You have to assume that everything is hot and treat it that way.
Question: What should I know about how to act around the blacksmith shop when I visit with my family?
Dave: When you come in, there is a chain across the work area of the shop. Kids and their families should walk up to the chain to see what we are doing. The reason we ask people to stay on their side of the chain is that the metal on the forge or anvil can be over 800 degrees and still not look hot. People should not come over to the forge unless they are invited by the blacksmith. When it is safe, the smiths may ask you to come into the work area and help. But please ask first. Most important is to ask us lots of questions! We love to talk about what we are doing and show how things work!
Question: Why is it so dark in the blacksmith shop?
Dave: The dark room helps us to see the color of the metal when it comes out of the fire. The metal turns different colors as it gets hotter and hotter. We know when the metal can be shaped when it turns the right color.
Dave: The smallest hammer weighs 1 pound and the largest is an 8 pound sledge hammer. The hammer I use the most weighs 4 pounds. That gives me enough force to shape most of the things I make. We use the larger hammers on large pieces of steel such as the plowshares. You do not have to be overly strong to be a blacksmith because when the metal is very hot, it is relatively easy to shape. A blacksmith does have to have good endurance though. You are standing for long periods of time, working the bellows and using a hammer all day long.
Question: Do you make horseshoes? Do you make nails?
Dave: Blacksmiths in 1875 had the skill to make horseshoes and nails but by that time horseshoes and nails were made in factories by machines. Blacksmiths would shape the factory-made shoes to fit the horses’ hooves and nail them on to the hooves.
Question: What is the hardest job you have to do in the blacksmith shop?
Dave: Forge welding is probably the hardest skill to master. Welding is what happens when a blacksmith heats up two pieces of metal and joins them together. I learned to weld by reading instruction books, talking with other blacksmiths, and getting a lot of practice. You can read and talk about something, but to get good at a skill you just have to do it over and over. This is true about any skill that you want to master as you can always get better at something.
Question: When people visit with you at the museum, what is your favorite thing to talk with them about?
Dave: I think my favorite thing in the blacksmith shop is to demonstrate how and why the fire allows the metal to be shaped and not destroyed.
Question: What is your favorite thing that you make in the blacksmith shop?
Dave: Heart puzzles. Everyone seems to enjoy figuring out how they work.
Dave: Yes it does. I wash my hands vigorously with soap and water and they come clean.
Question: You know a lot about history! How do you learn it all?
Dave: I have been learning history my whole life. I have learned from my teachers in school and college. But I have also learned a lot of history by talking with people like my grandparents and parents. I also enjoy visiting museums. I try to read as much as I can. I use both the public library and our museum guide’s library here at Living History Farms.
Question: Who is your favorite person in history? Why?
Dave: Theodore Roosevelt. He was an excellent President who worked very hard to make life better for all people. He also led a very full life and had many interests outside of politics. He was a very early and important advocate for conservation.