Living history abounds at Blacksmith Shop

Mount Nittany Middle School student Maeve Flanagan stokes the furnace as Eric Johnson heats the wrought-iron ladel in the Boalsburg blacksmith shop during the 2016 Boalsburg Memorial Day festival.
Mount Nittany Middle School student Maeve Flanagan stokes the furnace as Eric Johnson heats the wrought-iron ladel in the Boalsburg blacksmith shop during the 2016 Boalsburg Memorial Day festival. Centre Daily Times, file

Editor’s note: This story is part of the Road Trips special section.

For a little touch of living history in Boalsburg, you won’t want to miss the Boalsburg Blacksmith Shop.

According to Paula Ralph, docent at the Boalsburg Heritage Museum, the shop is “an excellent example of a 19th-century Pennsylvania specialty blacksmith shop — possibly unique in all of Pennsylvania in that it contains all of the original handmade tools, the original Swedish anvil, forge and bellows wheel.”

“This shop was associated with a large carriage works factory, so the blacksmiths in this shop specialized in putting the rims on wagon and coach wheels, and making the other iron parts for coaches, buggies and wagons,” she said.

The Boalsburg Blacksmith Shop would remain in continuous operation for more than a century, from about 1846, when the carriage works factory began operation, to the 1950s, when the last blacksmith, Al Gingrich, closed the doors.

Typically, the shop is only open to the public on Memorial Day (10 a.m.-4 p.m.), but docent-led tours are available with prior arrangement. You just need to call the Boalsburg Heritage Museum, which coordinates all tours and associated programming.

According to Ralph, during a tour of the shop, visitors get a chance to see a live blacksmithing demonstration and learn about the role a blacksmith would play within the local community.

“They will also hear about the life and times of our last blacksmith, Gingrich, who began as a blacksmith’s apprentice in 1895 at the age of 14, and how he managed to adapt to changing times as coaches gave way to the automobile,” she said.

However, if you can be in town for Memorial Day, that’s the time to catch the blacksmith shop in full swing. Every year, local students, ages 11-18, have the opportunity to work on-site as blacksmith apprentices, alongside professional blacksmiths, within the historic atmosphere.

“The students get to try their hand at blacksmithing (still an important profession today), they learn a bit about 19th-century ingenuity and know-how and the items they help make in the shop on Memorial Day become part of the permanent collection at the Boalsburg Heritage Museum,” Ralph said. “This has become an important Boalsburg tradition, now in its 26th year.”

The Boalsburg Blacksmith Shop is only one of the many pieces of local history overseen by the Boalsburg Heritage Museum. The museum is housed inside the 1825 Sara Sweet House, a building that was originally part of a tannery complex, and now offers unique exhibits throughout the year, including the current gallery, featuring Boalsburg artisans of the 1800s. Much of the remainder of the home is being preserved as it would have been decorated decades ago, with many relics and artifacts scattered throughout. Adjacent to the museum are the remains (and re-creation) of a barn that was once a part of the property and the entrance into the village; it now exhibits farming tools that would have been found in the original structure, as well as vintage tractors, sleighs and carriages.

The Boalsburg Heritage Museum is now open for its 2017 season, which runs from April through early December. Admission is free 2-4 p.m. every Saturday, making it a budget-friendly and educational outing for families. You’ll discover the museum located right on East Main Street, with the blacksmith shop not far away. While in Boalsburg, visitors can explore the handful of recommended dining options on the village’s Main Street, as well as the local shops.

If you go

What: Boalsburg Heritage Museum

When: 2-4 p.m. Saturdays, April-December

Where: 304 E. Main St., Boalsburg

Info: www.boalsburgheritage museum.org