Blacksmithing demonstration teaches modern day residents about an old-fashioned skill
By Denise Linke For Sun-Times Media October 14, 2013 2:54PM
Garfield Farm blacksmith Joseph Coleman heaps coals on the iron bar he's treating to make it heat evenly. | Denise Linke~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 16, 2013 6:15AM
The blacksmith set up his traveling forge in the Garfield Farm barn yard and filled its firepan with a mixture of coal and coke.
A few minutes after lighting his charred cloth tinder with flint and steel, he thrust an iron bar into the hot coals and waited until its end glowed cherry red.
Grasping it with his wolf-bite tongs, he transferred it to the waiting anvil and began shaping it into a handled hook for moving giant hay bales.
Only the spectators watching or recording the scene with video cameras revealed that it wasn’t the 1850s, when Garfield Farm west of Geneva was a working pioneer homestead at which traveling blacksmiths regularly stopped to ply their trade.
“Blacksmithing has lasted a long time around here,” commented Garfield Farm Museum educator Joseph Coleman, who demonstrates traditional blacksmithing at the farm and at Naper Settlement in Naperville. “I’ve had senior citizens tell me that they used to go downtown and see the blacksmith working in his shop when they were children.”
Garfield Farm owes part of its history to a blacksmith, Coleman told visitors during his “Blacksmithing 101” lecture and demonstration recently. Timothy Garfield, who bought the farm in 1841, decided to move to the Fox Valley while visiting St. Charles blacksmith Horace Bancroft, his childhood friend from Vermont.
The farm stayed in the Garfield family until Elva Ruth Garfield turned it into a pioneer farm museum in 1977.
While most people associate blacksmithing with shoeing horses, a country blacksmith had to know how to make and repair many things, from plows to harness fittings to axes to kitchen utensils, Coleman said. He sometimes repairs broken equipment and makes small tools for use at the museum at the farm.
“I’d be able to do a lot more with it if I’d started at age 10 and gone through the traditional apprentice and journeyman stages, but I wouldn’t have been doing anything else for that whole [eight- to 12-year] time,” he commented. “Apprentices worked from sunup to sundown nearly every day of the year.”
He learned basic blacksmithing in a week-long crash course as a Naper Settlement educator in 2005, and has been practicing on his own since then, he added.
At least one of the visitors at Sunday’s demonstration came to get tips on how to do his own blacksmithing.
“When I worked as a carpenter, I started learning how to work with steel as part of the job,” said St. Charles resident John Brouwer. “Now that I’m retired and doing Civil War re-enacting, I want to get into blacksmithing so I can make and repair my gear like they did back then.”
Others, like Garfield Farm volunteer Bill Alar, came to support the museum’s mission to preserve the technology and culture of pioneer Illinois.
“This sort of thing used to be common knowledge,” he observed. “Even the average farmer could fix his own tools enough to get by when he had to. I don’t want us to lose that ability.”
Hinckley interior designer Tiffany Anderson said she finds blacksmithing and other historical arts relevant to her career.
“It’s good to know what’s involved in creating traditional wrought iron accessories and architectural elements,” she explained. “Besides, I love anything to do with history.”
Coleman said he enjoys learning the many details that go into blacksmithing, not to mention the science that makes it work.
“People think farmers were uneducated back then, but they really had to know and understand a lot just to survive,” he stated.