Portable Blacksmith Shop Brings Old Trade to Shows

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The interior of Larry Whitesell’s portable blacksmith shop is surprisingly spacious.
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Larry made repairs to this wagon wheel, although such work typically falls under the wheelwright’s umbrella.
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These letter openers were handmade from 3/8-inch square stock. Getting the blade to look like this, however, either requires a lot of filing and sanding or the use of a belt grinder and polisher. Some smiths use modern equipment in their craft; others prefer to do it all the old-fashioned way.
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This chandelier was a group project for members of a satellite blacksmith group.
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Larry, pulling his portable shop onto the show grounds.
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Produced on the forge, this trivet can be used to hold a dish hot from the oven, or as a support for a pot when cooking over an open flame.
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Larry, in the process of rolling a tire.

At the Mid-America Threshing & Antiques Show held every August in Tipton, Indiana, this country’s agricultural heritage comes back to life through demonstrations and displays. Events like this are held all over the U.S., giving enthusiasts ample opportunity to attend and get involved in preserving traditional agricultural practices and equipment.

Several years ago, I decided that I would demonstrate the blacksmith trade at the show in Tipton. After loading, hauling, unloading, setting up, demonstrating, loading, hauling, unloading and putting the display away each year, I began to consider the merits of a portable blacksmith shop. It increasingly seemed that the demonstration itself had become the lesser part of the operation.

Compact size correlates to shops of the past

I purchased an old hog-moving trailer for the frame and hydraulic system and an old barn that I tore down for the lumber. I think my neighbors thought I had lost it when I started building this 10- by-20-foot building in front of the main door to my main shop. Later, they learned it would be portable. When it’s time to head to the show, I simply back up my tractor, hook to the drawbar and connect a hydraulic line. Up it comes and I’m ready to go.

In terms of size, the shop is as big as a lot of shops were many years ago. It has a line shaft that powers a Hawkeye helve hammer and a post drill. It’s also equipped with a forge, anvil, vise, slack tank and many other items found in a blacksmith shop. When it is set up like this, the trailer’s wheels are hidden under workbenches on either side.

The shop is very heavy, so I don’t go very fast when I’m moving it. It’s good that I live only a few miles from the site where the show is held. Once I get to a spot that looks pretty level, I just let it down to sit flat on the ground. Then I unhook the tractor and throw a piece of binder canvas over the hitch to camouflage it. A metal wall on one side is hinged at the top; it swings out to make a shed roof, almost doubling available workspace. Two columns drop down by removing a wooden peg, creating a nice area for spectators to be sheltered from sun or rain.

Smith looms large in memories

The first few years I took the shop to the show, people were more interested in how I moved it than they were in blacksmithing. But it’s always fun to talk to folks who come to watch the demonstration. If I see elderly persons approaching, I can almost bet what they are going to say. Almost without fail they will remember going to the blacksmith shop with either their dad or granddad when they were young, generally to have plowshares sharpened.

The other thing that amazes me is they always remember the name of the blacksmith. But if I ask what the blacksmith charged for the work, they never remember that part. In those days, the two most important people in a small town were probably the blacksmith and the barber. The blacksmith would fix or make everything; if you were sick, the barber would bleed you. I’m glad that process stopped before my time.

A careful distinction

A lot of folks today think that the blacksmith shoes horses. Many years ago, they did, and they also built the horseshoes. It is my belief that 90 percent of the folks who call themselves blacksmiths today could make a horseshoe, but they would have no idea what to do with it. At the same time, probably 90 percent of farriers (folks who shoe horses) today could not make a horseshoe and know very little about forging metal.

The 10 percent of people who have both skills are some amazing folks. Not only that, they can make their own tools, as well as produce fine art and restore old iron. That small group is what we would call the more traditional smith.

In Indiana, 14 satellite groups make up the Indiana Blacksmith Assn. A “hammer in” is held just about every Saturday somewhere in the state if you want to get involved. You can learn from watching demonstrations (live and online) and talking to others.

In the 20 years I’ve been involved with these folks, I’ve met some of the finest people you could imagine. These folks are always eager to help others – especially younger folks – get started in the trade. And you might be surprised to learn that there are some fine female blacksmiths these days; it’s not just a man’s group.

Today’s world won’t wait

In today’s world, we’ve grown accustomed to things happening at a very fast pace. Probably the most difficult thing about demonstrating the blacksmith’s craft is that people watch for a few minutes and then, since they don’t see you produce a masterpiece in that short time, they move on.

Another problem with our trade today is foreign competition. Sometimes I’m asked to make a shepherd’s hook or crook to hang a flowerpot from. As kindly as I can, I suggest they go up town and buy one from the local hardware as it will cost about what my material cost would be, and it’s already painted.

The old-time blacksmith really did do everything. In more populated areas, you would have had folks who were more specialized, like the wheelwright, for instance. That truly is a lost art. I started to get interested in the wheelwright trade a few years ago. I even bought a collection of wheelwright tools. I soon realized I had started about 60 years too late. I should have been hanging around a wheelwright when I was about 8. There is still a call for this trade today, but it’s a very small niche. Soon these guys will all be gone. FC

For more information:

– Larry Whitesell, 4314 S. 300 W., Tipton, IN 46072; lfwglw@gmail.com.

 – Indiana Blacksmithing Association. and Southern Ohio Forge and Anvil (SOFA) are among many established groups that hold annual conferences open to interested persons. Learn more at the Indiana Blacksmithing Assn. and at Southern Ohio Forge and Anvil

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