Artist in Iron Creates Art from Old Farm Tools

Oklahoma artist in iron’s collection features windmill weights and Navajo saddle blankets among other old farm tools


| October 2010



NEW iron artist

Tools, parts and pieces are put to work as fence panels at the home of Joe and Leah Smith.

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.

Wide range of interests

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." 

Vintage windmill weights

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.