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
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
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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Update: June 2012