Stoking the fire

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Neil Pope

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Oregon blacksmiths history alive in Brooks

Neil Pope looks the part. Broad-shouldered and tall, you can easily imagine him in the classic role of the blacksmith you may have in your mind. That image, he says, is probably wrong.

'To the men who used to do this for a living, this was just like working in a car factory would be today,' he says. 'We add romance to it in our minds.'

A former Nike employee, the Vancouver furniture maker and bronze sculptor has been doing blacksmith work for four years now, starting at Fort Vancouver as a historical re-enactment. 'This is great here,' he says. 'We get a very different crowd.'

Here is the grounds of the Antique Powerland Museum in Brooks, Ore. Founders of the museum built the smithy on the grounds in an old-style, weathere-wood shack, very similar to the style of building once used to historically house blacksmiths. Historical accuracy, though, isn't the point in Brooks, and that's the way Neil likes it. 'At the Fort, you were talking a lot about history, but here, with all these old iron guys, you actually get to talk about the ironwork,' he says. 'I'm interested in the history, but I really just like to talk about the work.'

Like Neil, Dean Moxley likes working on the grounds at Brooks. 'This is one of my favorite spots,' he says. 'When they've got the Steam-Up here and all those one-lungers going with a different voice, you can work with the rhythm of those.

Dean, who lives in Portland, Ore., hasn't been working at black-smithing for very long - only six years. He also got his 'start' at Ft. Vancouver, too, but as a spectator. 'I've always gone over to Ft. Vancouver during the holidays and the whole family - well, me anyway - would spend hours going over and watching the blacksmithing.'

It wasn't until he discovered the facility in Brooks, though, that he got the nerve to give it a shot himself. 'I got really lucky here,' he says. 'There are a lot of good teachers here and people are willing to share everything - from techniques to tools.'

Now, Dean's one of the people who's doing the teaching in Brooks. 'The first thing that it takes people time to learn is just how hard it used to be to do something,' he says, laughing. 'When people come in here, they're so used to the computer age. When we hand them a couple pieces of bar stock and stoke up the fire, they start to get the picture.'

No matter how hard the work, though, everyone appreciates the fact that they have it pretty nice in Brooks. Vancouver resident Ted Anderson, who's only been at it for a year-and-a-half says others in the craft are jealous. 'This is a fantastic facility,' he says. 'It's got anything we need and the forges are excellent for what we do.'

Dean adds, 'And we like to use the air hammer here, too, which can really help you out on some big projects.'

Despite the fact that the smiths who work in Brooks seem more interested in the future of blacksmithing as a craft than its past, if you get them started on the history, you'll learn more than you ever thought there was to know. Dean seems particularly excited by it, passing on great tidbits of information. 'The tradition of blacksmithing in this manner goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians,' he'll say while he waits for a piece of stock to turn the right shade of red in the forges fire.

And after welding two pieces of steel with nothing but the strength of his hand and the aim of his eye, he'll talk about how the 'old-timers' used to use fir bark 'and little else' to heat their forges.

Like the old-timers, most of the blacksmiths in Brooks still make all their own tools. Ted Anderson says that that's one of the reasons that he likes the craft so much. 'In so many ways,' he says, 'this is one of the few self-sufficient hobbies. The skills you learn help you create the equipment you need to continue.'

Ted says that he really does enjoy it when people who used to work in smithing come up to talk to him. 'I think it takes people back, especially here, when, out on the farm, their dads or grandfathers used to do blacksmithing just to keep the farms going.'

Most of the men who work on blacksmithing like to work, with the obvious exception of making their tools, on more ornate, decorative ironwork pieces. To watch them take three small pieces of iron and create a beautiful, delicately twisted design from them is as amazing a sight as your likely to see. It seems so simple: pound here, heat there and twist.

Dan Cecil, of Canby, Ore., has been working at this for some time. He's shoed horses for 20 years, been doing decorative iron work for eight years and has been a member of the Blacksmith Guild for one year. To watch him perform the heat, pound, twist miracle is to watch a man consumed by a craft. Unlike Neil, he doesn't look the part. He's a slight man and, in his dark-rimed safety glasses, looks more like a banker than a blacksmith.

Making a fire poker with a intricate twisted handle, he moves back and forth, from forge to anvil, and back again, never really looking up from his work. A man asks him how it is he does the work he's doing and, without missing a beat or looking up he simply says, 'Keep the fire hot. Hit hard.'