Our 1800’s western Blacksmith is fully working and during the summer we give demonstrations most everyday.
In the old days a blacksmith was one of the most important members of a community. The reason for this was that every person (to some extent) depended on the blacksmith; a horse can only be ridden so far without shoes, wagons needed repairs, tools and nails all had to be made by hand, and all the farm equipment eventually needed to be repaired. All this was done by a blacksmith; there were no machines to do these things. So it is easy to understand why the blacksmith was so important. But the blacksmiths’ story actually doesn’t begin here in America; it usually began across the ocean in the old country.
Since it was fairly certain that you would make a good living, many people wanted to be a blacksmith. But in those days there was no school you could go to, to learn blacksmithing and most people could not have afforded this anyway. So in order to learn a trade a custom was developed that was called “Indentured Servitude”. This was where a person was sold into slavery for a certain period of time. Some times Indentured Servitude was used to pay off one’s debts, sometimes parents used it to make money off of their children but often it was used to help kids get an education. When it was used for this purpose the arrangement went something like this: A parent would go looking for a good craftsman of what ever craft it was decided the child should be; when one was found they would enter negotiations; after those were reached the child of 10-12 years old would go and live with the craftsman and work for him as a helper thus learning the trade. Some of the very best craftsmen were in high demand and so they would only take the best children. Sometimes parents would have to sign their children up on waiting lists at very early ages just to get a good teacher for their children. Some of the craftsmen were very good masters treating the children like their own, others were not.
The amount of time a child spent in this situation varied greatly, sometimes only lasting a few years, and sometimes much more. The blacksmith had to make sure he made some money from the child over and above what it would cost to feed and clothe him. At first the child would be nothing but in the way, the only job he could do was to pump the bellows and he could only do that for so long before at his young age he wore out. As the child grew so would his capabilities. First he would learn to make nails and chain; a necessary but time consuming job that the blacksmith himself would not have wanted to waste his talents on. Then he could take over the horse shoeing and fixing of farm equipment, it was this stage that a blacksmith apprentice looked forward to most. The reason for this was that when you shod a person’s horse or did a good job on their equipment you would usually get a tip; these tips were the child’s future.
When he started getting tips he would go up to the loft where the apprentices usually slept and find a knot in the wood about half way up the wall. He would punch this knot through and then drop his money into this hole. Every time he got a tip this is where it went. He was saving up for the day he would be released from his servitude and he could go into business for himself. This boy of 13-14 had no doubt heard of the new land and all the exciting things going on there. It was the land of opportunity, everyone had an equal chance, there was money to be made and didn’t he hear they ate meat every day like rich people? He was fortunate and had a good master yet he only got meat once a week!
This new land called to everyone; no matter how different they were, it held something for each. The problem was getting there; passage was expensive. That’s what that hole in the wall was for, passage and some tools of the trade. They figured that the space behind the wall and about half way up, was big enough that by the time it was filled so that no more could be put in, they would have enough to get to America.
When a boy of 15-18 reached the end of his servitude, if he had enough to go out on his own he would, if not he would sometimes stay on with the Smithy earning a small wage. As soon as he could afford to he would find a ship sailing to America. Often he would hire on as a ship hand and work his way over. Once there he may have been surprised by what he found! America from very early on had its own share of big busy port city’s; similar to the old world. In the city’s just like in Europe, it would have been hard for a youngster to start his own business, along side older more established smiths. But unlike Europe there was still the West. Here again though getting there posed a problem, but in this blacksmiths were among the most fortunate. Since their craft was in such high demand they only needed to find a freighter heading west. To have a Blacksmith along on a trip was a real bonus, if they had problems with a wagon they had someone who could fix it or if a horse threw a shoe, no problem. So, along went the blacksmith who would drive a wagon out west for the freighter. If the blacksmith was a forward thinking man he would find a freighter who was building a new outpost in some little community and ask to work for the freighter at the new post. This way he would not have the expense of building a shop or finding a place to sleep. The freighter would have liked this as well; he would have someone sleeping there who had joint interest in making sure no thief got in.
So this is where the design of the western blacksmith shop came from. In these pictures of our shop you can see that there are three compartments on the first level and a loft over the top of the middle compartment. The left side was for incoming freight and the right for outgoing. The center was for the smith’s tools and the loft for him to sleep in. As he became more wealthy he would build a house and the loft would be used to store hay in for the freighters horses or for the blacksmiths own apprentices.
The blacksmiths that came out west were almost always single men. So when they became more settled they would be looking for a mate, it is interesting to note that quite often they would marry the school teacher. This was because school teachers like blacksmiths were always the first respectable members of a new town. School teachers were carefully chosen since they would be shaping the next generation, also they were required to be single. Blacksmiths held a position of importance similar to the lawyers and doctors of today. Therefore it was just natural that the blacksmiths and the school teachers should get together providing a happy ending for this narrative of the old west.
Come swing a hammer and try your hand at blacksmithing or have one of our expert smiths custom make some iron accents for your homes. If you can imagine it, they can make it.