•COMING IN SEPTEMBER, 2015•

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

by Emery Roth

Friday, March 12, 2010

Blacksmith's Cornucopia


PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Of course the alchemists are real. We live amid their transformation. The difference between the way the native Americans processed maple sugar and the productivity of colonial methods was metal. Among the alchemists of that earlier time were the farm blacksmiths. When we think of blacksmiths today, we commonly think of horse shoes and sweaty men in the image of Longfellow's smithy. In fact the farm blacksmith did far more than shoe horses. He made hinges and door hardware, repaired wagon wheels and kept his plows and saws sharp. If he did not make his own chains, he knew how to add a link to repair them. He made a variety of tools for his daily work from drill bits to most or all of the tools he used at the forge. He could make a sturdy whiffletree and a smoothly operating clevis.

Since we live remotely from the magic by which raw earth is transformed to hardened metal of superior strength, we may think his task not too different from the potter's, but the potter's artistry is of another dimension from the blacksmith's alchemy. At his forge he transformed molecules by many different recipes. He could improve the metal's hardness, it's tensile strength; he could make it pliant or springy, and if he was highly skilled he could put a spirit in the metal giving it magnetic power. In fact, the very first electric motor was created by a blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, in Vermont. Whether a blacksmith could create a magnet or not, he was always arranging the invisible field lines of the molecules in the iron to flow like currents of water in a stream or like air flow around the wing of an airplane. He had to be precise in the temperature and the chemical make-up of his fire. Too much sulphur, the wrong amount of carbon and his efforts would fail. He had to know just when to pull his work from the forge and beat it on his anvil and when to turn and put it back in the white heat.

Of course he also shoed horses as is evident in this image from an abandoned blacksmith's shop little disturbed for 60 years; and he kept the hay wagons rolling when the ruts savaged another wheel. It was the practiced skill of the farmer-blacksmith that kept things moving.