“ReminisceSpeak derives its ego-boosting excuse in the very act of reminiscing. We relive moments, or recall facts in a nostalgic manner, in order to step out of ourselves, so to speak, and into another time…. The urge to relive the past, and hence to reincarnate oneself, dies hard.”
– EgoSpeak, Why No One Listens to You, Edmund G. Addeo and Robert E. Burger
THEY STAMP THEM OUT like horseshoes,” said the committee chairman, “I don’t see why the lead time is so long that it fouls up our production schedule.”
“Horseshoes are not stamped out,” I said. “The way you make a horseshoe is….” I noticed the chairman’s glare and broke off. Silently, I continued, “I’ll bet there’s not a man here who knows how a horseshoe is made, much less ever saw one made.”
It is barely possible that the current craze for nostalgia may retard my rate of obsolescence. Of course some adjustment will have to be made. If they’re going to ask “Where were you in ’62?” I can only say, “Well, I was sitting right here at this same desk, talking on this same telephone to many of these same people,” etc. Now if the question were, “Where were you in ’32?” I could say, “I was back in 1882.”
For my acquaintance with the past is not just due to my age but also to growing up in an area that was a good half-century behind the times. I mean it’s bad enough to remember Calvin Coolidge, but my hometown, within my memory, had electricity only in the evening, say from dark to 11:00 p.m. Why would you need lights in the daytime? Or after 11:00 p.m.?
However, even when I was a boy blacksmith shops were fast becoming obsolete. Nevertheless, I worked in one and over forty years ago learned how horseshoes were made.
Not at all worried about missing anything, I spent the rest of the interminable committee meeting recalling my experiences in the blacksmith shop.
I’m not sure when it was but probably 1931 or 1932 when I was ten or eleven years old. At that time I spent the school years with my grandmother and the summers with my mother. For reasons now unknown to me, we spent that summer in Tilton, Kentucky. I suspect the population of Tilton was about 300. It had one general store and, directly across the road from the store, a combination garage and blacksmith shop. Though the sign proclaimed it “Denton’s Garage,” it was much more a blacksmith shop than it was a garage.
From the front the shop appeared to be a one-story barn-like structure with weathered, unpainted, vertical board sides like a typical tobacco barn. It also had the usual black tar-paper roof. It sat back about fifty feet from the road and had in fact been moved back in one piece when the new road had been built the year before. In the middle of the front of the building stood two gas pumps and at either side of the pumps there was a wide door into the building. In summer these doors were left open when the shop was open. The contrast in lighting on sunny days made the interior of the shop look black from outside, and people driving cars into the shop always had difficulty seeing where they were going.
Right behind the gas pumps was the sole window that illuminated the little room that was the office. In the office was a battered roll-top desk piled high with tattered supply catalogs, an ancient Underwood typewriter, an adding machine, two or three ledgers, a high stool, and a broken-armed swivel chair. Everything (window, chair, desk, adding machine, and typewriter) was coated with a black film.
Mr. Denton, the owner, operator, and most times the sole worker, was a block-shaped man of perhaps five feet ten and 170 pounds. He was about 65 and his hair had about gone. He had mild black eyes under heavy, John L. Lewis brows. He had a noticeable pot belly. He also had a film of grime, mechanic’s grease combined with smoke, soot and coal dust from the forge. No amount of scrubbing would take it off. Even when he was dressed in his Sunday best there was no mistaking his occupation. His Sunday suit was black and hard and shiny. It looked like it might be centuries old and he appeared uncomfortable and vaguely disreputable in it as if he were wearing a disguise.
What a contrast to his air of quiet competence in his shop. In shirt sleeves his most notable feature was his massive right arm which like that of many a blacksmith was much larger than his left. When he raised a heavy hammer at the anvil, his bicep looked like it would surely burst through his shirtsleeve.
My memories of Mr. Denton and of the shop are both sharp and specific and at the same time very spotty. For instance, I cannot imagine how we arrived at my doing what I did that summer. I don’t remember any discussion at all about it. What I did was this: I worked from 8:00 a.m. to noon in the shop, went home for lunch, returned at once to the shop, and worked until closing time which may have been about 5:00. For this I received no pay except that I was given the run of the shop and permitted to use any and all of the equipment.
Well, perhaps I did, in a way, make five cents per day, for each afternoon at about 2:30 Mr. Denton and I would go across the road to Embry’s General Store and each of us would get a bottle of an uncarbonated grapefruit drink (I can’t recall the name of it) from the cooler. Mr. Denton would hand Mr. Embry a dime, and we would sit on the front steps of the store in the shade of an awning and sip the cold sweet drink. No one would be minding the shop, but it was in full view, and if somebody stopped, Mr. Denton would yell, “Be with you in a minute.”
I did almost all the gas pumping (the pumps were not electric) and collected the 16¢ per gallon and made change from a cigar box in the office.
I also typed (hunt and peck) his few business letters. What they must have looked like! Even more astonishing, I became his bookkeeper, kept the daily ledger, added up the day’s receipts, etc. I cannot now imagine someone letting a ten or eleven year-old keep books for him. And how did he know I could be trusted with the money in the cash box? He never even seemed to consider the possibility of my having poor scruples or poor arithmetic.
Inside, the shop covered an area of about 70 x 100 feet, the left side from the front was the blacksmith shop, and the right was the garage portion. Frequently we would have a wagon on the left for iron tire replacement and a car on the right for new piston rings. Mr. Denton was more blacksmith than mechanic but, in those days, there was not such a gulf between the two. The shop was built on a slope that dropped sharply from the road so that there was a basement under the back half of the shop. In the basement was a gasoline-driven generator (Tilton didn’t even have electricity at night) to provide power for the lights in the darkest corners of the shop – there were no other electrically operated devices.
There was also an engine to run the belt drive system that powered all the machines in the shop. If you look at a picture of the interior of a factory of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the first thing that strikes the eye is the power distribution system consisting of over-head shafts and pulleys and a forest of leather belts coming down to the machines. Each machine had a mechanical clutch (really a shift of the belt from a free to fixed pulley) that could be engaged to cause that machine to operate, but all the belts were in constant motion if any one machine was being used, and there was a deep rumble from the turning shafts and a constant slapping of leather belts. Now, of course, each machine would be run by its own electric motor. This gives the interior of a shop or factory a totally different appearance.
My primary responsibility was operating the bellows at the forge. The forge was a brick structure about four feet square and three feet high. In the center was a pit covered by a grate about 18 inches in diameter. The bellows, so called from the days when it was a bellows, was a fan that pumped air into the pit below the grate. Above the forge was a hood and a stove pipe that led through the roof. The bellows fan was enclosed in a steel case and was geared to a hand crank. It was not hard to crank but when the forge was being used, it had to be cranked almost continuously and could get tiresome. Coke and coal were burned in the forge. In the mornings the fire had to be started with kindling and then coke and walnut-sized lumps of coal were added and the bellows cranked to get the coal and coke glowing. On a very damp morning, a white cloud of smoke would form and sometimes pour off the side of the forge like a silent, slow-motion waterfall. Throughout the day the fire had to be checked occasionally if the forge was not being used.
Beside the forge was an anvil that must have weighed 500 pounds. It had a rectangular surface with holes here and there for tools to fit into. One end of the anvil was almost conical, tapering to a fairly sharp point.
Mr. Denton made horseshoes from black iron bar stock. He would heat the bar white hot and place in one of the anvil holes a chisel-shaped piece of steel and lay the bar across the chisel and cut off a length of the bar with a quick blow or two with his hammer. While I turned the bellows he would heat the piece of iron bar and, with a skill that now seems incredible to me, would shape it into a horseshoe in five minutes or so. The finished shoe would still require some adjustment to fit a given horse. This was done by reheating and spreading or pressing together the arms of the horseshoe.
Toe and heel calks for the shoes were hammered out separately and fitted into holes in shoe while the shoe was hot and upon cooling seemed to be an integral part of the shoe. Each shoe had to have several holes punched into it for the horseshoe nails that were driven through the shoe into the horse’s hoof. I cannot remember how these holes were made nor how the channel was made in the shoe to allow the nail heads to be recessed. It must have been by punching. I’m sure no drilling or other machining was done on a horse-shoe. In fact now that I think of it, blacksmithing and machine shop work never seemed to be combined. Every job was one or the other.
Even then horseshoeing was a rapidly declining business, and Mr. Denton probably did not average one per day. Usually the horse’s owner would hold the horse’s bridle and if necessary talk to the horse to keep him calm. Mr. Denton would don an ancient-looking, stiff leather apron and pick up the horse’s hoof and hold it between his legs while he pulled off the old shoe and removed all the nails. With a rasp he would file the hoof to a sound, plane surface for the new shoe. Then he would stick a shoe in the forge, and I would crank the bellows. When the shoe was red, he would adjust it to the proper size with a few hammer blows. After cooling the shoe in water, he would hold it to the horse’s hoof to check the fit. It was usually just right, so he would quickly drive the eight or so nails. The points of the nails would come through the hoof an inch or so above the shoe and there be bent over (clinched) , cut off, and filed smooth. The job, all four shoes, could have been done in 20 or 30 minutes, but he was never in a hurry and all the news had to be given to and received from the customer during the horseshoeing so an hour or more might easily be required.
Now and then a stranger would stop at the gas pumps, but all of the blacksmithing was done for people who lived within a radius of five or six miles—all of whom, and their families as well, were known to Mr. Denton and had to be inquired about. There was no local newspaper so the blacksmith shop and the general store served as communication centers in addition to their primary functions. A good part of the news could only be characterized as gossip, and quite a lot of the information passed in the shop was in circuitous language which they assumed was not to be understood by a small boy. That’s one area in which small boys, and small girls as well, have astonishing linguistic capabilities, and I was not too backward to puzzle out what it meant when some unlucky girl was said to have “swallowed a watermelon seed.”
My favorite job to watch was replacing the tires on wagon wheels. The old tire, worn thin, was knocked off leaving a bare wood rim. The circumference of the wheel was carefully measured and a piece of strap iron was heated in the forge and cut off at just the right length. Then it was in and out of the forge and quick hammer blows at the anvil to make a circle of the straight strap. The ends were then hammered together while white hot. When cool, the tire was placed against the wheel to check the size. If it was just right, it would nearly, but not quite, slip onto the wheel. Mr. Denton’s skilled eye told him instantly if it was right, it was at this point beyond measuring.
The tire was then placed in the forge and I cranked the bellows while it was turned so that the whole tire was heated more or less uniformly. When the right temperature, again determined by experience, was reached the heat-expanded tire was quickly slipped onto the rim causing a burst of smoke with a burnt hickory odor. In a matter of minutes, the cooling tire would shrink to a tight fit on the wooden wheel. The casual skill of this procedure never failed to fascinate me and I wondered how long it took to acquire such skill.
In Mr. Denton’s view everything was learned by doing, and he rarely considered any explanation to be of value. One learned to temper by cooling iron in water or oil over and over until somehow you absorbed the variables of time, temperature, and rate of cooling. Perhaps he really didn’t know how he knew when such things as temper were just right. One suddenly understood how inefficient, and at the same time thorough, some of the old apprentice training must have been.
I made, at the anvil, one screwdriver blade after another and tempered them. Some were as brittle as glass, some were soft as butter. If I ever made one that was close to being right, I can’t remember it.
One thing sure, banging on red hot iron with a heavy hammer at an anvil is a first class outlet for the excess energy of a small boy. And the trust, acceptance, and friendship extended by Mr. Denton may well have been a very important factor in my boyhood. My extreme interest in the shop likely was because it was so indisputably a man’s world – a rare and valuable environment for a fatherless boy.
Suddenly I became aware of a new tempo and that everyone was stirring in anticipation of adjournment – if not conclusion. It was extremely unlikely that this committee would ever reach a conclusion.
“Maybe I’ve wronged old Joe,” I thought. “Maybe horseshoes are stamped out. In forty years, isn’t it likely that the methods of making horseshoes have changed?”
For a brief moment, I considered tendering an apology, but I thought it might possibly be construed as an indication that I had not been paying attention to the important deliberations of this august committee so I abstained.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Cheltenham Bold. Ink is Van Son 40904. Text stock is 50-lb. offset; cover stock is unknown. Published by Jake Warner and 460 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.