2005-08-13 / Top News

Blacksmiths Share Their World of Work

Convention Showcases Historical Art, Science of Iron Craft
By Jessica Delaney

Steve Neumann of Saginaw uses hot coals to heat iron for portable fencing.
Steve Neumann of Saginaw uses hot coals to heat iron for portable fencing.

Movies depict blacksmiths in heavy leather clothing, slaving amidst flying sparks over a hot forge, but according to the two dozen blacksmiths assembled at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop last weekend, that’s not quite true.

“Forge welding is the only time you’ll have sparks, if you’re doing it right,” said Tim Carr, a professional blacksmith from the Muskegon area.

Mr. Carr joined 24 amateur and professional Michigan blacksmiths Saturday, August 6, for the annual convention, hosted by Mackinac State Historic Parks. This year, blacksmiths continued their work to manufacture portable iron gates that will be used in the state park. They also spruced up some of the tools used at the shop, and many of the blacksmiths stayed around after the shop closed to work on personal projects.

Tonya Grupp of St. Joseph likes to create a trinket or two for her son and daughter at home. This year she made iron leaves for them. Small ironwork like this is considered “fussy work” by many of the male smiths, but Ms. Grupp said she enjoys the more detail-oriented work, a particularly good skill for a female blacksmith to possess.

“I can’t handle the heavy hammers,” said Ms. Grupp. “There are some things that require lots of arm strength that I can’t do. But with a medium-sized hammer, I get along just fine. I like doing leaves and little rosebuds.”

Although strength does count for something in the smithing world, it certainly doesn’t count for everything. Lyle Cline, one of the convention’s most devoted smiths, refers a reporter to a Longfellow poem, “The Village Blacksmith,” pointing out, “That poem is not it. Granted, if you work full time, that will enhance your size, but not for a hobby.”

Many of the blacksmiths at the convention are men and women intrigued by the art of metalworking, who spend their days at other jobs. Though blacksmithing is steadily growing in popularity, it is still not a regular career consideration for most people.

Mr. Cline became interested in blacksmith work after stopping in at the Benjamin Blacksmiths shop on Market Street, one of the museum exhibits maintained by Mackinac State Historic Parks. Watching the smith there, he said he “caught the bug” and dove into classwork, books, and attending reenactments to learn as much as he could.

Others began earlier in life. Ms. Grupp’s cousins and an uncle were involved in the trade, and she tagged along as a child. Mr. Carr had a childhood interest, too.

“I always played with metal,” he said. “When I was 14, I was scrapping out cars and started building race cars. I did it as a hobby.”

Since so many do engage in blacksmithing as a hobby, there is a wide range of experience. Some, like Mr. Cline, have been working at blacksmithing for more than two decades. Others, Mr. Carr included, are professionals, and Ms. Grupp has been toying with blacksmithing on and off for 11 years, with years of inactivity owing to the birth of her children.

But the expertise, or lack thereof, contributes to a good mix at the convention.

“We try to let the newer people jump in where they have an interest, or with something they haven’t done before,” said Mr. Cline. “We never tell anyone what to do. It’s not that kind of group; it’s very open. We want to get the projects done, but we also want everyone doing what they enjoy doing.”

Mr. Carr agreed. He comes to volunteer conventions such as these, instead of being paid for similar work back home, for the interactions with other smiths.

“This is my sixth year up here, and I’ve really had a lot of fun,” said Mr. Carr. “The friendship has always been fun. You’re always learning, and working with other smiths.”

Ms. Grupp, as one of the less experienced smiths, said that this open, friendly communication has helped significantly.

“There are no trade secrets,” she said. “If I ask these guys, they'll teach me. And I love working in the groups, because everyone brings their own ideas and it all meshes together.”

The convention on Mackinac was the brainchild of Islander Dennis Bradley, former Benjamin Blacksmith Shop worker and now the airport manager for the Mackinac Island State Park Commission. There are other blacksmith conventions in Michigan, but most of them are down south, in the Grand Rapids or Detroit areas. The convention on the Island provides an opportunity for smiths in the northern part of the state to get together and work the craft.

During their first convention here, the blacksmiths created the fish weathervane that can be seen atop the Officer’s Stone Quarters at Fort Mackinac, just above the tea room. Mr. Cline said a fish is depicted because, historically, that is what existed at the fort when soldiers were stationed here.

For future projects, smiths will continue their work on portable iron fences, and maybe will create a second weathervane for Fort Mackinac.

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