Monday, June 10, 2013

Blacksmithing in Chemung County

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

As a craft, the history of blacksmithing dates back to the Iron Age, or about 1200 BCE.  At its most basic, smithing involves using fire and an assortment of tools to forge items from iron or steel.  Over the centuries, smiths have made everything from tools to weapons, horseshoes to art. 

Before the 20th Century, every town and village in America had at least one blacksmith.  In 1861, there were 7 smiths in Elmira; 4 in Big Flats; 3 in Breesport, Post Creek, Millport and Wellsburg; 2 in Horseheads and Van Etten; and 1 in Pine Valley, Seely Creek, Ashland, Chemung and Erin.  These local blacksmiths shod horses, made and repaired farming implements, pots and pans, wagon parts and a wide range of other things necessary for everyday life.       

Industrialization, however, greatly reduced the need for blacksmiths.  Machines could produce metal goods faster and more consistently than any human could.  The products produced by blacksmiths could vary widely from piece to piece, but a machine would make the same thing each time.  Towards the end of the 19th Century, most blacksmiths had moved away from making tools and hardware and were primarily involved in either shoeing horses or doing decorative work.  And then came the car.  In 1900, there were 25 smiths working in Elmira alone.  By 1920 there were 10 and by 1960 there was only one smith in the whole county. 

Nationally, the 1960s were the nadir of the blacksmithing trade.  Throughout the 20th Century, smiths transitioned to automotive repairs or retired and few people were interested in taking up the craft.  In the 1970s the Bicentennial led many to take an interest in traditional crafts from quilting to blacksmithing.  Today blacksmiths can be roughly divided into two groups; farriers (they just shoe horses) and artisans.  The Artisan Blacksmiths’ Association of North America has nearly 4000 members, many of whom make decorative pieces and/or provide demonstrations at museums and living history centers. 

On Saturday, June 15th, from 1pm to 3pm, one of these artisan smiths will be doing a demonstration of his craft right here in the CCHS parking lot.  Nathaniel Francisco, a recent Elmira College grad, has been working as a smith since high school and interned with the blacksmith at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown.  Some of the products of his work will be available for sale.  Hope to see you there. 

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