The black blacksmith with a bellowy laugh

In West Denton … there were two blacksmith Shops serving the farmers and residents of the area. One was operated by a Negro named Walter Moore …  I doubt if any kingdom ever fell because Walter’s nails came loose.

[Excerpt from Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  Copyright 1983 by George W. Swartz]

Some farmers had their own blacksmith shop, others had all of their work done by a professional blacksmith. Wilsie Clayton Ikenberry, in his publication “The Gay Nineties – Country Style,” tells of a blacksmith shop located between his home farm and another farm and which was used by both families. The usual blacksmith jobs were done by unskilled farm workers, but as the boys in a farmer’s family grew up one or more of them would assume the role of blacksmith for the more skilled jobs.

In West Denton during my boyhood days there were two blacksmith Shops serving the farmers and residents of the area. One was operated by a Negro named Walter Moore, and the other by a white named Thomas Pollard. Both were in business to make a living.

I have memories of “loafing around” some in each of the shops – in the Pollard shop because he had two boys close to my age with whom I played and grew up since they lived only a couple of houses from ours, and in the Moore shop because he always seemed glad to have a little assistance from me.

Mr. Pollard did not care for boys other than his own in his shop, so I did not spend much time there; I was likely to be run away anyhow.  So, most of my blacksmith knowledge was learned in Walter Moore’s shop.

Walter Moore was a patron of dad’s store and often stopped in to loaf a short time after his work in the evenings. I remember that he was a jolly fellow and that he had the largest front teeth that I have ever seen on a human being.

Everyone seemed to be playing jokes on him because of his good nature. There was one joke that was pulled on him several times in my dad’s store. Walter had a habit of leaning back against the counter and bracing his hands behind him on the flat surface. Sooner or later dad or someone would set a mouse trap and slide it up carefully behind him close to his hand and,given time, he was sure to touch the trap and catch a finger in it. Needless to say that with his large “and sinewy hands” he wasn’t hurt, but he would jump a “country mile,” rave and carry on, and then break out in a bellowy laugh, thus providing entertainment at his expense for those around. Even though he was the “victim,” he enjoyed it immensely.

I spent quite a few hours in Walter’s shop. There were always things for the homeowner or farmer to be fixed – plow points, picks, mattocks, hoes, and other tools to be sharpened or repaired, horses to be shod, and many other tasks. Welding, as we now call it, was then done by heating the two pieces of metal to a red heat and then pounding them together on an anvil until the two pieces became as one, immediately immersing them in a tub of cold water to harden the metal.

Horses were brought in to be shod. Iron tires were replaced on old wagon wheels or put on new wheels being built. All kinds of repairs were made to wagons, springboards, buggies, even if it required the use of wood as well as metal. If repairs slacked off, the blacksmith even built a new wagon for sale, complete with body, wheels, tongue, etcetra. Eventually, when completed, the wagon would get a coat of paint, usually red, and I might be allowed to help with that.

Horseshoeing was one of the major tasks of the commercial blacksmith. The blackmith would shoe a horse by taking each foot, one at a time, and holding it between his own legs, resting it on a heavy leather apron that he wore. With a large heavy rasp and a curved knife, he would first trim the hoof so that all of the ragged and dead parts of the sheath were removed, leaving a solid base upon which to nail the shoe. Then the shoe would have to be tailored to fit the hoof. The blacksmith would buy the shoes in quantities of various sizes, but even then, each one would have to be heated the forge of red hot coals and pounded on the anvil to fit the hoof. Then they were immersed into a tub of cold water to cool and to harden the metal.

The blacksmith carried to the shoeing site a tray with his tools and various sizes of horseshoe nails. As he held the horse’s foot on his apron between his own legs, he drove nails through the holes already molded into the shoe into the hoof at an angle one at a time. As the nail cut out of the side of the hoof he would cut off the end not needed and then bend and pound the nail tightly into the side of the hoof.

The blacksmith must have been aware of the old saying that goes something like this: “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; for the want of the horse the rider was lost; for the want of the rider the battle was lost; and for the want of the battle the kingdom was lost”, although I doubt it. I doubt if any kingdom ever fell because Walter’s nails came loose.

The production and use of the work horse in our country has become almost nonexistent except in a few isolated sections of the nation. However, the production and use of the pleasure horse has increased in many places. This type of horse is used for racing, riding, rodeos, and horse showing. Those animals have to be shod just as the work horse did. The person who does this honeshoeing today is not called a blackmtth; rather, he goes by the name of farrier. The farrier does not work in a shop as did the blacksmith. Instead he works from a pick-up truck and he takes his services directly to the farm on which the horses are housed. The demand is not too great and thus there are not very may farriers. They usually serve a rather large section of the country.

The town blacksmith also served as a general mechanic in his community. He did not work on autos nor mechanical appliances such as garden tractors, power lawnmowers, tractors and similar inventions that have been introduced into our society in recent years. He did, however, repair garden tools and push-lawnmowers, sharpen cutting tools such as axes, crosscut saws, hand saws, and knives. In many localities today you will find a shop and a person called a general mechanic who is the modern equivalent of the earlier blacksmith. He does welding, repairs power implements, and serves as a blacksmith but in a different way – perhaps not as glamorous as the old blacksmith’s aura.

The making of a wagon wheel was always fascinating to me. The wooden parts such as the hub, rim sections, and possibly even the spokes were purchased, although I have seen the blacksmith make his own spokes. After assembling them together on a huge sturdy table or platform, they had to befitted with an iron band or “tire” around the outside of the rim.

This tire not only held the wheel together but provided a surface that would withstand many miles of wear on hard-surfaced or graveled roads. The tire was exactly the width of the rim and about one-fourth of an inch thick. It would be heated on red-hot coals, shaped and trial fitted several times until the blacksmith was satisfied that it would go on the rim tightly enough to hold the wheel together and to provide many miles of travel without loosening. Then the entire metal tire was heated to expand the metal sufficiently enough to pound it onto the wooden rim of the wheel. It would fit very tightly, and as cold water was poured all the way around until the metal tire was cool it would shrink enough to hold the wheel together and not come off in everyday use.

Sometimes the wood in a wagon wheel already in everyday use would shrink so as to loosen the tire, making it necessary to refit the tire by the same process. I have often helped with the pouring of water on the rim of a wheel to cool the metal and make it fit tightly.

The blacksmith always had a forge, a table-like affair constructed of brick and standing about thirty inches high. It was hollow inside and had a grate across it for the bed of coals. A set of bellows forced air up from the inside through the coals to make them red-hot and to increase the temperature.

The bellows were turned by hand via a crank. Just above the forge was a huge hood to catch the smoke and sparks and carry them out through the chimney. The blacksmith had to turn the bellows with one hand while he maneuvered the metal through the red-hot coals with the other hand when metal had to be heated. This could become a bit of a problem, especially if he was holding a large piece such as a wagon tire. He knew how to do it alone if necessary, but needless to say, Walter Moore was always glad to have me around to turn the bellows when he had pieces of metal to be heated.

The forge was fired up every day and the coals would lie there smoldering until needed and until the bellows brought them to life again and to a red hot glow. Today, welding of metal is done via oxygen/acetylene torches or via an electric welder using electrodes instead of by the method used by the old blacksmith.

Nevertheless, through his method of repairing wooden and metal parts for use in the home and farm, shoeing horses, and his ingenuity in making new things, the blacksmith performed an important role in the progress of our nation, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to witness and to experience it.

Walter Moore was one of a kind, a large black man, good-natured, hard-working and as trustworthy as they come. He did his part in the development of the Denton countryside. I learned quite a bit from him as I lingered from time to time in and around his shop. I can still hear the ring of the old anvil as piece after piece of metal was pounded out by the big blacksmith hammer. I’m sure my dad was not concerned for my safety or well-being when I was in this old blacksmith’s shop.

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