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Blacksmith Shops
Nature Bulletin No. 705   February 16, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

In the fourth chapter of Genesis it is related that Lamech, great-great- great grandson of Cain, and Zillah had a son, Tubal-cain, "an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron". He is the hero of an epic poem written during the 19th century by a Scot, Charles MacKay; and because my grandfather was a blacksmith I remember parts of two stanzas.

Old Tubal Cain was a man of might
In the days when earth was young;
By the fierce red light of his furnace bright
The strokes of his hammer rung.
And he sang -- "Hurrah for my handiwork!'
And the red sparks lit the air;
"Not alone for the blade was the bright steel made;
And he fashioned the first ploughshare.

Since the earliest times of which we have recorded history, the smith -- a metal worker who forges with a hammer -- was an important person in a community. Until the advent of modern inventions and technology he was indispensable. Nowadays, however, you may find goldsmiths, silversmiths, coppersmiths and tinsmiths but blacksmiths are scarce and most of them have become welders or manufacturers of ornamental ironwork.

Originally they made implements for warfare -- swords, spears and, later, weapons such as battle-axes, halberds and pikes. During the Middle Ages they made armor. Tools and implements for agricultural and forestry purposes were considered to be of small importance. Tubal Cain thought otherwise. So did the people who settled America.

The earliest villages in Indiana and Illinois, for example, were of two general classes. One grew up at a crossroads where there was a blacksmith shop and a country store which was also the post office. The other grew up around a damsite where there was a gristmill that ground grain into meal and flour, perhaps a sawmill, and a blacksmith shop. The settlers came there from miles around.

The blacksmith was more than a farrier who cleaned, trimmed and shod the hoofs of horses, mules or even oxen. Using his forge and anvil he made those shoes, also nails, from iron bars. Later, he bought kegs of them from factories. He heated and hammered ploughshares until they had a proper point and sharpness. Steel tires were welded, hammered into shape and, when red hot, shrunk onto wagon wheels by dousing them with water.

The best blacksmiths were also machinists and gunsmiths. They could make and temper tools -- even axes, although that required rare skills. Every blacksmith was a fixer of all sorts of implements and utensils, household as well as agricultural. Yokes for oxen, axles, chains, bear and wolf traps, scythes and cradles for harvesting grain, adzes, hoes, shovels, locks, shears, sausage grinders, pots, huge kettles, and the metal parts of apple presses, looms and spinning wheels were a few of the items either made or repaired in a blacksmith shop.

It was a busy place and a center of social activity. It was a place where men loafed while their horses were being shod or their ploughshares sharpened, to gossip, argue about politics, or tell tall stories -- and we boys listened. It smelled of manure and the peculiar stench of hoofs seared by hot iron as shoes were fitted. The big bellows, inflated and deflated by means of a hickory handle, creaked and whooshed as it blasted air through the fire in the forge; the anvil rang with the merry tattoo or measured beat of the hammer; metal, heated until lemon- yellow, hissed when plunged into the tub of water or bucket of fish oil to temper it.

The wilderness was conquered by the rifle the ax and the plow. The blacksmith served them all.

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