My friend told me before I left home that “Just because it isn’t glowin’ doesn’t mean it’s not hot.”
So the next day I set out from the mountains of northeastern West Virginia along the Shenandoah Valley to the John C. Campbell Folk School (Folkschool.org) in the hills of far western North Carolina to take a week-long class on the basics of blacksmithing.
I know several blacksmiths, men and women who “soften” steel with fire and make it flow in shapes and directions as though it were clay. They are strong people, often quiet in their intensity, focused on keeping the fire to nearly the melting point of steel, able to fetch the glowing and malleable stock from the heat and quickly bend or wrap it around the sides or horn of the anvil before it returns to its rigid and dark natural state. The hot steel becomes their liquid voice.
Their ancient craft, dating back to the Iron Age about 1,500 BC, is as “ornamental” as it is functional… gates with solid leaves forced by heat and hammer to assume life-like form, fireplace accessories that feel like a handshake in your paw, garden follies that grab your eye better than any staged dance revue. And they make all these protean changes of shape look almost easy and seemingly effortless.
I found out quickly that’s not necessarily so.
To get to where I was, I had followed my curiosity about blacksmithing that had been piqued a few years earlier watching local smithies working. These are crafts people who don’t spend their time simply making horseshoes. They are the sons and daughters of those who toiled over forges to give the substance to our lives in an earlier time. Doors with hinges that would not sag, chandeliers that held the candles to give the light to both cottage and great hall, graceful railings to keep us on the path, curved or straight and narrow.
Stopping along the way in Asheville, one of this country’s great small towns, to visit with friends, I had the chance to see the work of a number of smithies whose hot studios are perhaps more inviting in winter than summer. But the forges that eat the coal have a life force unto themselves, smoking with an anxious energy about to take off.
On Sunday, I set out out in the early afternoon for the final 100 miles of my journey, one that I have made many times in the past decade. These miles take you further away from what some think of as “civilization” to a rural landscape deep in Appalachia that you soon sense resonates with a different kind of bustle. As John Campbell and his indefatigable wife Olive Dame, educators with a calling for humanitarian work, came to appreciate early in the 20th century, they were not there to patronize the mountain folk who lived in the “hollers” and led agricultural lives, perhaps a bit lacking in formal education but rich in self sufficiency, creativity, and music. The Campbells were there to collaborate with and learn from as well as teach the local people as they all embraced an experimental Danish educational concept that was noncompetitive–no grades, no credits, no pitting of one individual against another.
Although John died before the school was established in the mid 1920s, Olive and her friend Marguerite Butler, worked closely with the people of Brasstown for the rest of their lives to create this school as a unique institution that seeks to bring out the best in people. The school offers a wide spectrum of classes ranging from basketry to broom making, pottery, jewelry, cooking, dance, dyeing, drawing and painting, enameling, story telling, stained glass, knitting,kaleidoscopes, leather, marbling, tin smithing, music, nature studies, needlecraft, photography, printmaking, quilting, spinning, sewing, stone and sculpture, weaving,woodcarving, woodturning, woodworking, and writing. And, of course, blacksmithing.
Listening to the welcome of Jan Davidson, the school’s longtime director, during “morning song” early on Monday before breakfast, you learn more than a bit about the proud people, mostly of Scots-Irish descent, who first settled these mountains that run from southern Ohio,through Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and into western Georgia. You know that they can also be the butt of “hillbilly” jokes, but that is the viewer’s loss and a simple perception that belies a rich heritage. As Jan likes to note, few people who spend time at Campbell go home with the cliched image of paddling canoes and banjo music. And if you’re going to be a part of the school, you quickly learn that the correct pronunciation of the third “a” in Appalachia sounds a bit like throwing an “apple at ‘cha.”
So, who are the people who spend their precious time and scarce money at Campbell?Are they so different from the local folk who by necessity had to be creative and practical if they wanted furniture, pots and pans, baskets, farm implements, and musical instruments? Visitors to the school today might have different accents, higher incomes and more formal education, but they have many of the same values of hard work,responsibility, and curiosity as those who came before them several generations earlier. They are people engaged in something outside themselves. Most importantly, they share a common desire–perhaps even a need–to get their hands dirty, to be the ones who actually cut the willow for the baskets, form the clay for the pots, and chainsaw the logs for the bowls.
There is ultimately the satisfaction and innate enjoyment in making your own “toys” rather than buying them.
In today’s ever more technical world where we fight wars on computer screens, talk to the person in the next room via e-mail or twitter, and leave planet Earth on a regular basis to play in various fantasy worlds, there is perhaps a stronger appeal to connect with what is real, things we can touch and feel.
Thus, when Howard and his assistant David gathered twelve strangers together after supper on Sunday, we began to live the John C. Campbell experience of learning without competition, of bringing our various talents together to acquire a new skill and to assist one another. We soon chose our hammers and tongs and were introduced to Fire. As the week progressed, I was reminded of the myth of Prometheus, the great benefactor of mankind, who stole Fire from Zeus to empower mankind with a new force,one of the four great life giving components in our world — Earth, Air ,Wind and Fire–with Fire being akin to the active, the enthusiastic. Fortunately, there was only enthusiasm the week I was there – no burns, blood or bludgeoned feet from heavy falling objects.
The term “blacksmith” comes from the “forging” of iron or the “Black” metal. The term “forging” means to shape metal by heating and hammering. Blacksmiths work primarily with wrought iron and steel. The “black” in “blacksmith” refers to the black fire scale, a layer of oxides that forms on the surface of the metal during heating. The word “smith” derives from the Old English word “smite,” to hit. Thus, a blacksmith is a person who hits black metal.
The school’s blacksmith shop captures the idea of solid strength that the school represents. Remodeled a few years ago with the close coordination of the Timber Framer’s Guild, the structure combines steel with massive timber framing to place you in a fortress that defies siege. Instead of hovering or dancing over the ground, it is part and parcel of the Earth from which it rises with its smoke stacks reaching into the air. You feel confident and safe in its embrace.
In making our way to our forges and learning to make our fires and keep them hot, we got our hands dirty quickly. We also learned to use the concrete floor as a place to drop hot steel. The coke that is made from the burning coal produces temperatures that are color coded and go from red, then orange, yellow and finally white. The ideal heat for most forging is the bright yellow-orange color appropriately known as a “forging heat.”
The blacksmith must tend his fire constantly and watch for these colors. Before you can blink, you learn that coke can get hotter than you can imagine and quickly consume your steel. When you reach that critical point, the steel can melt and burn, just like a piece of kindling: when it takes on the form of a Fourth of July Sparkler, it’s time to start over.
The great heat-producing coke is also fragile and easily crushed or broken into small pieces. Too much air burns up your fuel too quickly whereas poor techniques of inserting iron into the fire for heating or improper or excessive use of fire tending tools will break up or pack the coke and spoil your fire bed. Just as soon as you think you have the hang of it, your fire pulls away and pouts and won’t give you what you want and need.
One of the basic laws of blacksmithing is that the fire will not abide being ignored. When one of us would grumble that our fire had fizzled out or had not taken and we couldn’t seem to get it back, David would wind his way over to our forge and explain what had gone wrong. Soon you began to feel how Fire can pull you into its spell and magic.
Needless to say, building a proper fire and maintaining it takes time to master, and we all quickly discovered that it’s not as easy as it looks.
At one point early on, I told Howard that I was about to tell him something I had never said in my life…”I feel a wee bit faint. “He smiled and said perhaps it was because I had been standing about 3 feet from nearly 2,000 degrees F too long. Swoon…
Our days would begin with Howard showing us how to make a variety of objects and then sending us back to our forges to “get ‘er done.” Not a lot of hands-on attention unless you asked. His approach was “you work it out and come back to me if your have questions.” More importantly, no one got burned during the week and no one dropped anything heavy on their feet.
Over the next week we made simple hooks and then “S” hooks, faux ivy leaves to adorn railings,and then fireplace tongs and shovels. Lots of twists of glowing steel to give our product some character. Finally, we had a demonstration of how to make a center punch that had been tempered to extra hardness.
It was a labor-intensive week with almost every night following supper stretching to the bewitching 10 pm hour. One ate well and slept soundly.
My eleven other fellow craftsmen and women became friends and helpmates over the week. We shared coal and fire, shoveled out the spent ashes together, assisted one another when needed, and parted on Saturday morning knowing we had shared an experience that had brought us together. The week was what John C. Campbell was all about.
A part of our hearts will remain in the Highlands near the fire where racks of hard, cold steel stock wait patiently for one of us to return, cut them to length, and coax them to respond to the flames and coals to curve and bend and take on new life forms.
Thank you, Howard, David, Director Jan, Dr. John, Lady Olive, Ms. Marguerite… and, last but not least, Prometheus.
- Photos: All the images in this story were supplied by the author.