Saving the Blacksmith’s Shop

Blacksmith museum showcases pieces from old blacksmith’s shops.

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Bolt-threading dies dating to 1894.

Eugene Blake

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Elk City, Okla., is home to the Old Town Museum complex that includes Pioneer Museum, Beutler Brothers Rodeo Hall, Farm and Ranch Museum, Livery Stable, Train Depot and Wagon Yard, as well as the National Route 66 and Transportation museums – all in close proximity and a short drive off Interstate 40 in west central Oklahoma.

The newest member of the group is a blacksmith museum, the result of volunteer curator Bob Kennemer’s involvement with the Western Oklahoma Historical Society after he retired in 1992. The historical society was looking for a project to support and he was looking for something to do with his collection of blacksmithing tools and equipment. He presented a proposal saying, “If you put up a building, I’ll equip it.”

The historical society provided one-quarter of the funding and a local fundraiser generated the balance needed to build a 1,800-square-foot steel structure. After the building was completed on Oct. 13, 2007, Bob and fellow volunteer Gary Seigrist began to display their collections. Another friend, Joe Smith, also contributed tools and equipment. The historical society was so pleased with the display that it funded a recently completed 2,000-square-foot addition. The city owns the property and the inventory is on loan from Bob, Gary, Joe, and the Farm and Ranch Museum (located next door).

Weighing in on anvils

As you’d expect, the museum includes several working forges. But what you might not expect is a collection of 80 anvils, many of which were forged in England, Switzerland or Germany. Several were cast in Sweden, where high quality iron was available.

“Most anvils have their brand name and a serial number embossed on them,” Bob explains. “With that information and a book entitled Anvils in America, you can study the history of the anvil, its date of production and weight.” English anvils, for instance, use a hundredweight system typically cast into the anvil in a string of three numbers.

For example, in the sequence 1-2-20, the first number designates the number of hundredweights (each the equivalent of 112 pounds) the anvil weighs. The second number refers to the additional quarters (each 28 pounds), and the third, the remaining pounds (a value up to 27) – or 188 pounds for the example given.

Bob takes particular pride in one anvil in his collection. “It was my father’s and its stand came from my grandfather’s junk pile,” he says. “For many years I didn’t know what the stand was. I knew it was functional – and heavy. Then I learned it was the engine block from my grandfather’s 2-cylinder Rumely tractor.”

The oldest anvil in Bob’s collection is an 1820 Armitage Mousehole made in England. It weighs 124 pounds. The heaviest are three anvils weighing more than 400 pounds each. The largest is a 440-pound Trenton, the most popular American-built anvil. His Hay-Budden anvil made for Keen Kutter (a brand name used by Simmons Hardware Co.) is especially rare, owing in part to Hay-Budden’s reputation for high quality. Some anvils were developed for specialized purposes. A plow maker with a diagonal table (the flat surface) was used to form plowshares. The stovepipe anvil, a very unusual piece, was used by stovepipe manufacturers.

Headers and hammers

A collection of bolt headers hangs on one wall, remnants of the era when blacksmiths made bolts by hand. “The header was placed over a red-hot rod held in a vise,” Bob explains. “The bolt head was formed by hammering until the rod end was flattened against the header. After being reheated, the head was beaten square.” An 1894 die set used to cut threads on the other end of the bolt is a related display.

The museum collection includes three restored trip hammers, mechanized pieces of equipment more efficient than a hammer and anvil for heavy work. Manufactured by the Little Giant Co., each was originally designed for line shaft use and was activated by the operator’s foot, thus freeing his hands.

The display includes a 25-pound unit, 50-pound unit and 100-pound unit. Bob and Gary restored them all. “When Little Giant ceased production of trip hammers, Sid Suedmeier of Nebraska City, Neb., was authorized to make replacement parts,” Bob says. “He helped Gary Seigrist and me restore these units. Sid also provided us with a forge.”

Babbitt bearings

A collection of melting pots and a heater provides a lesson in production of babbitt bearings. Invented by Isaac Babbitt in 1839, these bearings provided a surface resistant to galling (deterioration). Three compositions (each made up of small, hard crystals dispersed in a matrix of softer alloy) were commonly used:

■ 90 percent tin, 10 percent copper;

■ 89 percent tin, 7 percent antimony, 4 percent copper;

■ 80 percent lead, 15 percent antimony, 5 percent tin.

“Bearings were formed around a shaft (or shaft of similar size) by pouring the molten babbitt into a created mold,” Bob says. “This was one of the earliest types of bearings, and they required a lot of lubrication. The bearings for the drive shafts on the trip hammers were created that way.”

Keeping America rolling

Another part of the display focuses on equipment used to manufacture wooden wagon wheels. “A foot-operated lathe was used to turn the wooden hub,” Bob explains. “Next, a series of round holes was drilled around the periphery of the hub. Then the holes were given a rectangular shape using a mortising machine.” A hole was drilled lengthwise through the hub using a wood bit driven with a T-handle; reamers were used to taper the hole. The final cut was made with a device to true up the hole in the center of the finished hub.

Spokes, turned out on a lathe, had a dowel formed on the outside end. On the inside end a tenon was cut to fit the mortise of the hub. Felloes (the wheel’s outer wooden rim) were formed by bending longer pieces into a semi-circle or by cutting a series of shorter segments and connecting them.

The wooden portion of the wagon wheel was then ready to be assembled on a stand that secured the various pieces. Strap iron was formed into a ring using a device with three rollers. The ends were forge welded and then a shrinker was used to fit the ring to the diameter of the wooden wheel by heating and compressing the rim. The shrinker uses a long handle to exert considerable leverage on the ring.

Machine shop set-up

The museum’s newest addition contains a restored 1910 South Bend lathe with a 13-inch swing (24 inches if part of the bed is removed). Originally driven by a line shaft, it is now run by an electric motor. “I purchased it from a blacksmith shop in Sayre, Okla.,” Bob says. “It needed a lot of work.” An early milling machine is being restored now and will be added to the display when it’s complete.

A piece of unrestored equipment in one corner symbolizes a more modern phase of blacksmithing. A 15 hp arc welder was donated by Progressive Ag Services Inc., the subsequent owner of a cotton oil company that had been in business at the same location in Elk City since 1906. It consists of an AC engine driving a DC generator. The unit generates 220 volts and draws up to 38 amps. The generator is rated at 120 volts and 300 amps.

Raised on a farm 20 miles south of Elk City, Bob is a retired school administrator. He spends much of his free time at the blacksmith museum. “I’ve always been interested in old stuff,” he says, “I’ve even had a couple of old tractors. About 10 years ago I got interested in collecting blacksmith tools. I enjoy going to auctions that have good stuff. Three years ago we went to a three-day auction in Indiana. An older gentleman was selling his restored antiques that he’d created as a retirement fund. Lately, antiques have been a better investment than stocks.

“While there, we made friends with a retired manager of a chemical plant in Houston. Several days after we got back, he sent us a $1,500 check for the museum,” Bob says. “That’s another reason I enjoy collecting: I’ve made a lot of good friends.” FC

For more information:

– Old Town Museum Complex, 217 W. Hwy. 66, Elk City, OK 73648; (580) 225-6266.

– Anvils in America, Richard Postman, Postman Publishing, 10 Fisher Ct., Berrien Springs, MI 49103.

– Blacksmith’s Gazette: www.blacksmithsgazette.com.

– Bob Kennemer, 1201 Lynnwood, Elk City, OK 73649; (580) 799-1878; e-mail: bob.kennemer@sbcglobal.net.

Eugene Blake is a retired Presbyterian minister now living in Winfield, Kan. His work has been published in Green Magazine, Ageless Iron Almanac and Successful Farming.