Blacksmithing goes back about 6000 years, and it is believed to have begun on the African Continent. There are many myths and gods that can be found related to the blacksmith including blacksmiths themselves as magicians. As man evolved first from the Stone Age he stumbled across different elements like copper and then tin to make bronze then iron to make steel. The ancient alchemist experimented with all sorts of elements believing not only could they mix them but to create one element from another like lead into gold and they didn’t always succeed. During this period, they tried everything as we still do it today.
Let’s take just “Iron”. For thousands of years we have used iron for everything because of its durability, cost and strength and it serves the same purpose today and with modern technology we can make iron into all kinds of things. We can make it just the same or tougher than ever before. One should keep in mind that iron comes from the earth and rock just like it did thousands of years ago and it is a true blessing given to us by Mother Earth like our food, water, lumber, etc. Iron exists in everything including our bodies. For thousands of years we have run around on horseback and wagons and it was the blacksmith that shoed horses and built wagons, and they repaired them as well. Within the last 100 years or so the automobile came to be and early on it was the blacksmith that repaired that also. Now- a-days the blacksmith has evolved to include the Artisan Blacksmith. I often hear that blacksmithing is a “lost art”, and I can affirm that blacksmithing is alive and strong; however, the tools and dies we used to build and repair wagons of the times has gone by the wayside.
The Blacksmith is a Blacksmith by first name. The Smitty is the shop by name. All his or her tools that make the magic are so sacred that one would NEVER touch a blacksmith’s tools without asking.
My past experiences with blacksmithing are as such and I wrote this following history because I believe it is pertinent to what it is that I do now-a-days, it’s in my Ancestry and likely to be in my DNA. We are fortunate to have many family records and letters that date back to the middle 18th century on my Father’s side of the family.
My family immigrated from Ireland and England to America with the Surnames Rudd, Walbridge, Murphy, MacDonald and MacCracken. They all seemed to gather in the Bennington Vermont area (Bennington New York before 1799). During the pre-American Revolution period Ebenezer Waldbridge (b. 1740?) was an early member or the Green Mountain Boys and lived just down the road from Joseph and Thomas Rudd in Bennington. Joseph and Thomas were brothers and both were blacksmiths. Thomas never married nor had children. The relationship between the Waldbridge and Rudd families was very close including marriage. Within the blacksmith shop Joseph and Thomas made a tomahawk for Ebenezer which I still possess today dated 1753 (see pic).
Joseph and his two sons (Purchase and Increase) fought in several battles during the Revolutionary War along with Ebenezer and his son William. All five of them were enlisted in the American Continental Army with pay and pensions. They fought under the Command of John Stark, Horatio Gates, and Benedict Arnold in northern New York. The tomahawk in the photo was given to Purchase and was carried through the war including the battles of Bennington, Oriskany, Saratoga and Fort Stanwix among others. In one letter Purchase wrote home after the battle of Oriskany lamenting at how brutal the fight was because of a fierce thunderstorm that turned the battle into a vicious hand to hand conflict with tomahawks, knives, bayonets, swords, etc. the result of which the Red Coats suffered well over 1500 casualties., In one sentence he writes “they died in droves when they should have bugled the retreat”. Ebenezer and his wife Melvina fought courageously alongside the Rudd’s and many others at the battle of Bennington, killing over 900 Redcoats while protecting their food and grain stores. During their service Ebenezer earned the rank of General, Joseph became a Lieutenant, while Purchase and Increase both earned the rank of Sergeant. They are buried at the Bennington Vermont Church Museum Cemetery with bronze markers that read “Revolutionary War Solder”. The sword Purchase captured from a Hessian Solder at Saratoga is also in the museum.
Purchase and Increase went on to become blacksmiths. They were enlisted in a Company made up entirely of Blacksmiths and Apprentices, which wasn’t uncommon since blacksmiths were needed to care for horses, wagons, tools, weapons and numerous repairs. Imagine 150 or more blacksmiths working together to accomplish these tasks often overnight. They all survived the war except for one of the Murphy brothers and his wife who froze in a storm; the couple’s young daughter was adopted by the Rudd family.
After the revolution ended in 1783 many family members migrated south to find fertile farm ground and settled in Erie County New York. This included the Waldbridge and Rudd families, some of which became farmers and others blacksmiths including William and Alpheus the 1st. The family spread out quite a bit making it challenging to track all of them, but the ones I am most closely related too are from and lived in Tonawanda New York.
George Washington Rudd (b. 1828) whose son was Alpheus II (b. 1867) also became a blacksmith. George was a tinker and peddler and sold pots, pans and cooking utensils. Alpheus took an apprenticeship and became a master blacksmith. Alpheus’s son Elmer (b. 1892) became a Master Blacksmith, and later as a tool and die maker for the 101 Miracle Soda Company (101 Uses) in Buffalo New York. In 1858 Great Uncle Anson Rudd (b. 1830) migrated to the Colorado Territory with his wife Harriet (b. 1843) and became team blacksmiths during the Colorado gold rush period making and repairing tools for miners. Anson Rudd became wealthy and influential selling everything that miners needed. While living in Colorado my Grandfather Elmer became close friends with the boxer Jack Dempsey and ended up naming my Father Jack after him. I even had a chance to meet Jack Dempsey myself at his restaurant with my Grandfather while visiting. I never did ask what the relationship was between Jack and Elmer but I suspected my Grandfather may have been a “Bookie” so we may have had a bit of an outlaw in our family among some suspected others like Warren Rudd who was almost hung for stealing a sheep dog and re-selling it. Warren managed to escape through the woods with the rope still around his neck. What an idiot, he tried to sell the dog to the very person he stole it from not knowing he was the owner. Warren was also a blacksmith and worked on the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco during the 1930s. All of this and more was on my Father’s side of the family.
Next is the history of my Mother’s side of the family. Because my Grandfather Elmer knew my Grandfather Sebastian Dumont (b. 1893) on my Mother’s side my Father knew them as well. My Grandfather, Grandmother Tallulah (b. 1896) and Mother Beverly (b.1924) were Louisiana Cajun and lived and worked as tenant farmers. My Father met my Mother at a dance when my Father was in the Army stationed at Fort Polk during World War II. They apparently danced until closing time and I was born nine months later. My Father could not marry her because he was already married to Carol with one child, Dennis. According to the times I was “illegitimate’ which was frowned upon socially. My Mother was a “Rosy the Riveter” type welder at three different ship yards during the war and I was born in the shipyard infirmary, Garry Alpheus Rudd (b. 1944), named after my Fathers Surname. I stayed down South because my soon to be Step-Father Anatole Fuqua (b. 1924?) planned to adopt me and soon married my Mother. Anatole served in the U.S. Navy until was killed in 1945 in a battle with the with the Japanese in the Pacific. After the war my mother and I stayed on the farm until a boating accident the resulted in an infection that claimed her life in 1954. My Father had little interest in me because of Carol’s attitude toward me as the bastard child. Fortunately, my Grandparents Sebastian and Tallulah and large Nuclear family wanted me there in Louisiana and I of course stayed.
My Grandparents on both sides of the family loved me dearly, which I was about to find out and I’ve been praising them forever since. I will never forget the things I learned from them. To start with my Grandfather Sebastian was also a blacksmith. In approximately 1900 Sebastian left home with an uncle and joined the crew of the “Whaler Turpin” as a cabin boy and whaled of the coast of Portugal and in the North Atlantic. His favorite chore was feeding and taking care of the two dozen cats aboard; he had a name for every one of them. He also told me he loved to sit up in the crow’s nest and watch the pods of whales. Sebastian apprenticed in blacksmithing aboard ship and later became a Master Blacksmith in a land based shop under two Master Blacksmiths themselves. My Grandparents on both sides raised me by good Christian values. I had good family and was taught to be confident and was seemingly trained in everything from blacksmithing, welding, shooting, sewing, trimming lamp wicks, shoeing, harness repair just to name a few. I was even taught to maintain a good sense of humor since they believed it was the secret to a long healthy life.
I remembered the sayings that my Grand Parents came up with and wrote many of them down. Here are a few I have hanging around in the shop • “Be careful how you treat people, you never know who they’re going to be someday” • “Nothing worthwhile knowing is easily learned” • “Blacksmithing is 50% Physical and 50% Mental and the remaining 50% is also Physical”.
Things changed when I was hit by a car resulting in a bunch of broken bones. Although I healed 100% my father encouraged me to leave Louisiana and move to Upstate New York and live with them. It was an exciting thought to live in a much different place and see new things but I was not as welcome as I thought. I really believed the reason I was asked to move there was because the insurance money I was awarded for my injuries was something they could benefit from which they surely did. When that money was used up things changed. Although my Step-Mother was pretty wicked I stayed in New York instead of returning to Louisiana because my Father, Step-Brother, and Sister were not so bad to be around. More importantly my Grand Father Elmer, Grand Mother Harriet and Great Grand Mother Elizabeth became very close to me. My Grand Father taught me mathematics, how to read a slide ruler, die making and many other things. My Grand Mother taught me different ways of cooking and we often made ice cream together. My Great Grand Mother Elizabeth (b. 1872) was very inspirational and told me many intriguing stories. Elizabeth gave me the tomahawk, showed me old letters, and told me the many stories. I was very intrigued by all of this. I figured this is a good reason to stay where I was and my folks in Louisiana understood and supported me 100%. Another reason was among many other conveniences we had electricity in the house, telephone and television which pretty much overwhelmed me. I overcame the cultural differences and I really wanted to experience these new things around me and even excelled in school. My Step-Mother continued to be problematic so I temporally moved to Charlottesville Virginia for a while until things blew over to live with an Uncle which was a great experience. School was great too (my Uncle Tome worked there) and we seemingly spent every free minute fishing, hunting or going to the movies.
After I returned to New York I was able to find a job welding in a place called Regional Trucking, and I found that my two new bosses were rather amusing to be around. Their names were Heime and Joseph Sarafran; they were twin brothers who had been held captive in a German Concentration Camp during World War II; each of them with a tattoo number on their forearms. They came to America after the War and worked in an automobile plant in New Jersey, pooled their money and built their trucking repair company in upstate New York. As a shop worker I served as a runner for parts, beer, lunch etc. Although they were inseparable I can’t say that I ever saw two people physically fight among themselves more than these two brothers. They would throw tools at one another, wrenches, pliers, hammers, even a crowbar once, rolling around on the floor beating away at each other. And then they would help bandage each other up. They both always had big bumps, bruises and bandages all over them; it’s a wonder they didn’t kill each other. They didn’t bother me much, except for cursing, I got the hell out there as soon as they started on each other and I never argued with either of them especially when they had a monkey wrench in their hands. I was actually amused more than I was afraid.
It wasn’t long before I met a girl I thought was the love of my life and we married, but one morning she woke up and said “I feel like a new man”. That was that; even after three children whom she kept with her. After a final divorce it wasn’t long before I met the real love of my life. Linda and I married in 1973. I decided to move again, not back to Louisiana but to Colorado for a couple reasons. I had roots in the Canon City area and Linda’s Father lived in Denver which gave us a place to stay until we got on our feet, and my Grand Parents had all passed on too. We moved to Colorado in 1974. Because I knew so much about blacksmithing, welding, repair and farming I was able to choose just about any job I was qualified to do. I got a job horse shoeing at a racetrack and then when a good paying welding job came up I went for that. In 1979 I landed a good Civil Service job with the Colorado Division of Wildlife as a welder. My daughter Colleen was born in in 1985 and although I continued to stay in touch with my two sons and daughter from my first marriage the relationship was somewhat estranged with the exception of my daughter Tracy and her husband Andrew and their children who now live near Denver. In 1992 I transferred from the eastern Colorado office to the office in Buena Vista Colorado and became a Game Warden. I still did lots of welding, building humane animal traps, blacksmithing, farming operations, property management and serving hunters and fishermen. It was a great job but it had its problems too, I honestly didn’t understand the office politics which often made it difficult and although I always maintained a small shop of my own my desire was to have a much larger and more efficient blacksmith shop which I was saving up for. After twenty years with the State I retired and my wife and I built the shop that stands today.
Among the many things my Grand Father said was every hammer tone (mark) is like a signature, and the heartbeat of the blacksmith. When I am gone my legacy will be my heartbeat signature. We all have a life’s story and this one is. I have always been a blacksmith and plan on preforming this Ancient and Modern Art the rest of my life.
Because of my continued admiration for my Grandparents I prefer to dress the way they did, listen too much of the same music, and even shave with a straight razor among other things. I even use the same chaps and hammer my Grandfather used.
When I don’t know the answer to a question I can find out because the worst thing one can do is to when teaching is to pass on inaccurate information because the student is supposed to remember it, and nothing is more important than getting it right. It ruins the trades for years to come until the inaccuracies are corrected and who is going to correct them if everybody is wrong? I know my limitations, and when it is called for I send it out when it is something beyond my expertise. I don’t guess so I won’t make mistakes, if it is 18th century than it follows 18th century technique.
In a nut shell, the difference between the 18th and 19th century blacksmithing is that things that were mostly made one at a time by hand in the 18th century and were mass produced in factories during the “Industrial Revolution Period” of the 19th. Century. Hinges, farm tools, and even nails were made by hand as an example before the 19th century. I can easily identify a piece and tell whether it was made by hand or factory made, and with some research can tell approximately what century it was made even as far back as the 10th century. When I make a piece I make it as though I am making it for myself. I sign my work and the customer always gets something worthy of heirloom quality. I do not get in a hurry otherwise I fear a piece can come out cheesy or cheap looking because I was taught to concentrate, be efficient and to protect my reputation.
I have built up quite a reputation too because people have come into the shop with broken eye glasses, broken antiques and such saying where else can I go to get this thing fixed. Around town it’s been said “Go to the Blacksmith Shop on Cedar Street; if anybody can fix it Alf can”. Even my Grandfather once said “people would say, take it down to the Smitty in town and see what Sebastian can do with it”. If you don’t know what it is, ask a blacksmith and they can often identify it and its use. Also I have inadvertently re-created the necessary need for a Blacksmith in my community by being in the middle of town and just like in the past people consistently bring items to me to have them repaired, restored, sharpened, etc. not to mention custom work.
I always think things out so that I can best apply the proper hardware to a specific item. As an example a customer with a home that is of the Arts and Crafts period design should have hardware that matches his or her home. Another example is a large timber used as a fire place mantle was designed to have massive exposed timber spikes to support it. It was a better match to the mantle than simple scroll brackets. These things will exist for a very long time and it’s important to get it right. When coupled together it’s the perfect match. I have made many gates that fit the décor or personality of the property. But of all the things I try to avoid the typical plasma and laser work one often sees because it seems to me that when you have seen one you’ve seen them all. That cookie cutter look is not for me and I can’t imagine signing work like that but for the customer needs I can send it out and deliver it without ever getting my hands dirty. These methods are not blacksmithing; this is fabrication and assembly in a sense, much like a plastic or wood model. One can order hundreds of them because they are on file. Yet in some cases on a rather big job I find it necessary to have 100 or more like parts roughly cut out this way and then forge each piece to fit and match with the customer’s approval. When I need to make more than one piece like the other although they look alike there are subtle differences between them. This always demonstrates handmade work especially when it comes to scrolls. Handmade pieces are unique and should always be “Signed” by the artist.
Once a year I do and open house and demonstration of modern and traditional blacksmith methods plus teaching observational skills such as compound symmetrical bending, drop forging and identifying hand made from factory made items. In to creating many different pieces I recondition, restore and repair antiques, tools, industrial art, tool making for wood workers, leather workers and other craftsmen. My focus is on iron and copper. I leave the jewelry up to jewelers, the wood working up to wood workers and the tinning up to the tinners, but I am sure to pick the right ones when I need them for a beautiful wood top for a table base for instance. I am very careful to protect my reputation and do things the way I would do them for myself. All blacksmiths have their own creations, technique and determination to get it right. Not one can be compared to the other nor have they any completion because they are individual artists. By simply looking carefully at their work you can tell the difference in the level of craftsmanship. It is impossible to plagiarize each other’s work because of subtle differences in hand made pieces not to mention the signature touch mark. This goes for any and all artists.
Often I hear blacksmithing is a lost art but as I afore mentioned it is not blacksmithing that is lost but the tools not the technique. Anyone new to the trade of blacksmithing should take it very seriously and learn this ancient art accurately. Make a piece as though you are making it for yourself and pay close attention to detail. I promise you the finished piece will be very satisfying and rewarding. Nothing makes me feel better than when a customer says “Beautiful”. Take my word for it; people have an eye for beauty and detail. A beautiful piece today will be a beautiful collectable years from now not something seen at a garage sale. Always sign your work (touch mark) because the artist should and has always been proud of his or her work, bragging rights if you will. If you learn the ancient art of blacksmithing learn it from the Masters of the trade. Historically apprenticeship took about 30,000 hours (5 to 7 years) working with the Blacksmith to become a Master themselves which took constant testing, diagrams, samples, etc. Don’t be afraid to mix new methods with the old ones because it is a historical fact too that blacksmiths have always updated as technology changed but take great care as to not represent one thing as another, it can be spotted by comparison. What blacksmith in the past or present would turn down a modern drill press as compared to punching a hole or propane forges for that matter? Things can be iffy but if you know it from the git-go you can pick and choose the way you want to do it. I guess it depends on how you present it. Not to be meant as a value judgement, but a “Fabricator” is not a “Blacksmith” simply because he or she bends and forges hot iron. There is a difference between Blacksmithing and Blacksmith! And although I don’t know everything I know which one I am! Once you have mastered the trade you can traditionally go a thousand years or more into the past yet be in the present too. Protect your reputation. As my Grandfather said “What’s left is right and what’s right is left and only you can decide what’s left is right. He also said that you should maintain a good sense of humor to live a long healthy life. If you feel wronged by another eat a big pickle with a friend. Never charge a child to fix a toy. Be confident, believe in your talent and be the master of it. Iron is an element stronger than yourself; heat it and then beat it into a shape of something useful and beautiful.
The Smitty is always open to the public, and I’m happy to entertain a little Q & A so contact me anytime.
Happy Hammering, Alf (use a cursive like font for Alf)