There are very few things that have survived for thousands of years. However, blacksmithing, whether out of necessity, or for purely crafty tradition, has endured the long passage of changing times.
John Allen Davidson, Jr. states in his book, Blacksmithing in Western North Carolina: “The blacksmith touched all parts of society from the fields to the hearth.” In a very real sense, this is quite accurate. The blacksmith was an integral and irreplaceable aspect of the early communities of western North Carolina. Probably one of the most romanticized and a recognizable images of the blacksmith comes directly from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1840 poem, The Village Blacksmith.
Blacksmithing origins would be hard to pinpoint to a specific time and place because it was such a universal trade. Records of even primitive blacksmithing date back to Old Testament times in the Christian Bible.
A colonial blacksmith’s guild banner boldly proclaimed that “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand.” Namely, that blacksmiths were the ones that all other arts and trade crafts relied upon. In colonial America, blacksmiths were responsible for the tools that made all other aspects of life (farming, woodworking, building, etc) possible. Blacksmithing was on the decline by the 1920’s because it was no longer an absolute necessity. Mass-produced products came ready-made with much less effort. Therefore, “faced with such changes, the choice for blacksmiths was to adapt their craft to new purposes, or get out of the business. Many smiths went into auto body repair work or became welders, but some, like Daniel Boone IV, turned from functional blacksmithing to ornamental ironwork.” Clarence Rogers was a typical blacksmith with a shop in Whitter from 1914 to 1966. “He built and repaired wagons, made tools for logging and many other trades, re-pointed plows and built caskets. He charged 50 cents to shoe a horse.”
In the latter half of the 20th century, there has been a tremendous craft revival, especially in the south. In this area, the most notable would be the Cherokee Indians keeping their older traditions alive and passing them along to tourists and visitors. In terms of blacksmithing, the trade is still very much alive, albeit changed from its original purposes. Today, blacksmithing takes its place under modern art and is mainly used for ornamental and decorative work, but it is no less a highly skilled profession. It boggles the mind how blacksmiths can take a scrape of metal and create an intricate, detailed flower, piece of jewelry, or anything else they can imagine for that matter. There are still small blacksmith shops and forges scattered across the Western North Carolina area. There is a small forge in Sylva that has just recently been giving classes on blacksmithing.
Blacksmithing is not a great money maker, one could not make a living at blacksmithing alone, unless you have become famous for your works of art and/or are commissioned for a big project. However, most blacksmiths will confess that they continue to do it as a passionate hobby.
On this very campus there is a guy who is an avid blacksmith (there may be others, but I only have the pleasure of knowing one personally).
His name is Kenton S. Ebersohl from Durham, NC. While he is at school he is an English major, when he is at home, he is a blacksmith. He states that “blacksmithing has affected all aspects of (his) life”. To him, blacksmithing has made him stronger (physically, mentally and spiritually) and has taught him about many things besides art. Kenton does not specialize in one particular genre of artful blacksmithing as of yet. In the past, he has made everything from daggers to jewelry. Kenton apprenticed under a man known as Covalt. “Covalt is the MacGyver of blacksmithing,” Kenton fondly says. Together, Kenton and Covalt, travel across three states periodically doing blacksmithing shows. Kenton is currently building his own forge.
“Despite changes in tools and materials, the basic techniques remain much as they have been for thousands of years. Blacksmithing is still blacksmithing.”
Or, in the words of Longfellow:
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.