Oklahoma artist in iron’s collection features windmill weights and Navajo saddle blankets among other old farm tools
Meet Joe Smith on the street or on the seat of a dozer, you'd never suspect he was an artist. But drive down the quarter-mile lane to his ranch house 10 miles southwest of Leedey, Okla., and you'll be convinced: Here lives someone with talent, skill and pride – an artist in iron.
The lane and approaches are lined with 16-foot by 55-inch panels of welded artwork creatively composed of old farm tools, hay rake wheels, wagon wrenches, implement seats, open-end wrenches and horseshoes. Other creations stand nearby: a 15-foot horseshoe, a heart, a star, a saguaro cactus, Christmas trees and a series of spheres – including three concentric orbs – and all are crafted from horseshoes.
Among the horseshoe creations is a very realistic burro, with a welded skin of No. 9 wire and copper-colored paint. Surrounded by artwork, it's easy to overlook the hay shed, corrals, loading chute, longhorn steers, Angus bulls, machine shed, shops and ranch equipment.
When you finally arrive at Joe's home overlooking Hay Creek valley, you come to realize he's a collector as well as an artist. Varied relics of old-time farm and ranch life are artfully arranged throughout the home and property. Joe and his wife, Leah, have an extensive collection that includes windmill weights, rifles, spurs, vintage utensils and Navajo saddle blankets.
"I've always enjoyed collecting," Joe says. "I started in the 1940s and '50s when things were cheap." Now 83, he rides herd over an eclectic mix of plows, buggy steps, branding irons, firearms, cast iron implement seats, hay rakes, tractors, crawlers, blacksmith tools, anvils, hammers, wrenches and literally thousands of horseshoes from farriers all over the country.
"My dad was a blacksmith," Joe says. "So I was exposed to metal working at an early age. I've only worked for wages 6-1/2 days in my life. Other than that, I've always been self-employed. I didn't have anything when I started, but in 1946 I bought a used D-8 Caterpillar dozer probably made in the early '40s. I built farm ponds and terraces and did other work for local farmers. Eventually, I added another dozer and hired someone to run it. We worked 12-hour days on equipment with no cabs and often in heat over 100 degrees."
Joe's collection is diverse but uniquely focused. "When it comes to collecting, I believe you have to like whatever it is," Joe says. "I don't want junk. My favorite item is a hand-hewn wooden grease bucket from a covered wagon. But the windmills weights and Navajo saddle blankets are what we emphasize." His collection boasts more than 75 weights from California, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Texas and North Dakota.
Vaneless windmills used a counterbalance weight perched at the end of a wood beam to guide the wheel into the wind. Some manufacturers also used them as governor weights. Most were made of cast iron and weighed from 10 to 60 pounds (although some weighed more than 100 pounds). The weights were often decorative and, because they were visible from a distance, functioned as trademarks.
Elgin (Ill.) Wind Power and Pump Co. used weights shaped like roosters, chickens and squirrels (the latter are highly collectible). Joe recently added two Elgin Mogul chickens to his collection. Althouse & Wheeler Co., on the other hand, simply used a massive letter "W" for a weight. Joe has several of those; one is on loan to the Farm and Ranch Museum in Elk City, Okla.
F.W. Axtell Mfg. Co., Dempster Mill Mfg. Co., Batavia Windmill Co., Flint & Walling Mfg. Co., and Fairbanks, Morse & Co. all used weights in a simple crescent moon shape. Axtell's crescent had the name "Standard" on it, while Batavia Windmill's weight was called "Success," each identifying the name of the mill on which it was used. The Fairbanks crescent was called the "Eclipse" and was produced in both a "wet" moon (with points up) and a rarer "dry" moon (points down). The similarly named Dempster Mfg. Co., Des Moines, Iowa, used a 3-dimensional bull-shaped weight with the name "Boss" cast on the side. Simpson Windmill & Machine Co., Fairbury, Neb., featured a similar bull-shaped weight without wording. Fairbury (Neb.) Iron Works & Windmill Co. used a larger, 2-dimensional configuration called the flat bull, sometimes seen with no lettering or with the name "Fairbury" on the side. Both Flint & Walling Co. and U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. used star-shaped weights. Baker Mfg. Co. had weights that resembled a football and a battleship (named for the Monitor battleship used in the Civil War). Joe has a governor weight in the shape of a horseshoe, but the manufacturer's identity is unknown.
By the 1930s, with the advent of fixed-wheel windmills, windmill weights became obsolete. Most of the old windmills, often of wooden construction, were replaced or destroyed, but many farmers kept the weights, using them as yard art, doorstops or even anvils. Few weights have survived intact; many are missing their original base; pieces of many others have been broken off. Some collectors paint or refinish weights; others preserve the original patina.
Joe routinely travels to auctions throughout the Midwest, acquiring treasures to add to his collections. When he's at home, he's generally found in his studio. "I got into welding art when I sold my dozers about 30-35 years ago," Joe says. "I've made a lot of Christmas trees with horseshoes, many of which I gave away." He believes in keeping busy. "Before he more completely retired, he'd work all day," Leah notes, "then work on his art projects in the evening."
He pours time into his projects as though he had a limitless supply. "The buffalo in front of the Elk City Museums took me 15 months and the longhorn steer (also on loan to the museum) consumed nine months," Joe says. "That's a lot of work!" The intricate detail of his welded artwork is showcased in the bases on which his three animal creations stand. Joe fabricated yucca, bunch grass and buffalo gourd vines to add to the realism.
His latest project, which is nearing completion, is a full-size bell. He wrapped no. 9 wire around a form, tack welding as needed, and then put a finish weld over the entire piece. As an artist, Joe works with high energy, keen intellect and determination. "He has a lot of willpower," adds his son, Monty.
Those characteristics have helped Joe sustain his interest in a unique conglomeration of treasures. For some, the hobby loses its appeal with the passage of time. But Joe shows no sign of slowing down. "I don't intend to ever get done collecting," he says. FC
For more information: Joe and Leah Smith, Leedey, OK 73654; (580) 488-3869.
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. E-mail him at email@example.com.