By Phil James
For earlier generations, everyday life depended mightily on the talents of those who plied the blacksmith trade. In the age which preceded and overlapped with the advent of the gasoline engine, it was the blacksmith and wheelwright who forged, tempered and sharpened the everyday hand tools, shod the hooves of the working beasts, and built the wagons and conveyances that served the populations.
Antique maps and local road signage give a nod to some of those early tradesmen: Bishop’s Shop, Bowen’s Shop, Critzer’s Shop, Davis Shop, Link Evans Lane, Nicksville, Rogers Shop.
Some blacksmiths were born into the business and learned their way around the shop at a very young age. In western Albemarle County, the 1880 census enumerated William Day, age 48, as a blacksmith, and his 12-year-old son William as a “striker” in the shop. Twenty-three year old William Woodson was already sharing full responsibilities with his father Benjamin in the elder’s establishment.
In the Brown’s Cove region, men in the Batten, Blakey and Randolph families were working at the forge. Lemuel Shifflett (1884–1962) had been blacksmithing near Brown’s Cove before he bought a plot of land and built his house and a blacksmith shop near the store at Mountfair. Woodie Keyton recalled, “Lem could do most anything in a shop. He shoed horses, sharpened knives, picks and things like that.”
On the west side of the village of White Hall, in an area traditionally known as Piedmont, the Rev. Charles W. Skelton (1873-1945) answered calls for blacksmithing at his roadside shop in the corner of his yard. He and his wife Sally Ann also rented out apartments in their two-story house. On Sundays, he preached at area churches, including the Brethren congregation that met at Valley Bethel Church in Sugar Hollow.
On the other side of the little village, James Slaughter set up a shop and became known to all in the area. Decades later William Slaughter was still servicing customers at that stand beside the White Hall School.
Blacksmiths once were as ubiquitous as country merchants and elementary schoolmarms. Each locality and crossroads seemed to have one—or a few. At Free Union, originally called Nicksville for a local blacksmith, there were R.G. Ferguson and James Harris. Around Earlysville in the early 1880s were John Austin, Park Evans, Theodore Herndon, and W.N. Rogers.
On the corner in Boonesville, Minceberry Walton had made a reputation for good work. Just up the road toward Gentry’s Church, Ira Davis was keeping his forge hot. A.J. Burton and W.N. Riggles were the smiths of note at Batesville near Miller School.
Hiram Chapman Wyant (1879-1973) came to Albemarle County from Rockingham in 1910. His son Emory said, “When our family moved into Sugar Hollow, Dad ran the blacksmith shop there for years and did blacksmithing for people all through there, and that’s the way we learned to know a lot of them.
“He used an old slave quarters there as a blacksmith shop. The stave mill sat on our place for five years. They had two horses and about eight or ten mules and he did a good little bit of work for them. And other people hauled a lot of timber and bark out of the mountain, you know. He would shoe their horses, build wagons, wagon wheels, the spokes and the tenons and all that. He was real good at tempering things. Dad was the only one to have a blacksmith shop up there during that time.
“Years back, what they called the old tilt hammer sat in the corner of the [Sugar] Ridge Road. It was a type of old blacksmith shop run by Tom Barnes. But that was before my time.”
Tom Barnes certainly was working the forge before Emory’s “time,” having been born in 1820 and running Sugar Hollow’s tilt-hammer in the 1870s. He was one of many African Americans working in the field of blacksmithing.
Race placed no limits on those desiring to enter the blacksmith trade. One was as likely to encounter African Americans as whites working hot metal on an anvil. Indeed, when the need arose for such services, it was the proximity to a skilled shop that was a deciding factor, and not the color of the man swinging the hammer. The physical nature of the work separated the wannabe apprentices from the workers hardy enough to endure the rigors.
Rubber tires and mass-manufactured farm equipment, coupled with the affordability and ease of operation of gasoline-powered tractors, gradually retired the workhorses to greener pastures. Calls for traditional blacksmiths were reduced to such a level that it wasn’t possible to make a living solely with a forge, anvil and hammer.
In the early 1950s at Meriwether Lewis School near Ivy, agriculture teacher E.H. Puckett still was using the school’s basement shop to instruct students such as John Fisk on the basic skills of blacksmithing. For most students in his class, the skills and disciplines learned there would be carried over to other mechanical trades.
For, as Greenwood’s E.O. Woodson Sr. had explained to a 1950s newspaper reporter, “There didn’t seem to be much future for blacksmiths; the automobile, tractor, combine and other power-driven farm machinery were here to stay.” Woodson, a third generation blacksmith and the last in his family to work full-time at it, once had shoed up to 1,200 horses annually. By the time of that interview, his workload was half that number and steadily dropping.
Today, the ones who have become proficient at the trade of the blacksmith and wheelwright of old carry forward a tradition of service to others and an enviable work ethic that future generations will do well to mirror.
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