State College

Blacksmiths bringing the heat to Memorial Day

John Wood, of Wilson, N.C., right, helps Mount Nittany Middle School fifth-grader Maeve Flanagan form the end of a fork as Eric Johnson stokes the furnace in the Boalsburg blacksmith shop during Boalsburg Memorial Day festivities on Monday.
John Wood, of Wilson, N.C., right, helps Mount Nittany Middle School fifth-grader Maeve Flanagan form the end of a fork as Eric Johnson stokes the furnace in the Boalsburg blacksmith shop during Boalsburg Memorial Day festivities on Monday. nthomas@centredaily.com

Sometimes you just have to start at the beginning and hope for the best.

It’s true whether you’re writing a news story or hitting something repeatedly with a really big hammer.

Case in point: A young girl adorned in a thick apron and thicker goggles spent a small portion of her Memorial Day morning introducing the business end of said hammer to a piece of red-hot metal.

It’s best to pause here for a moment to point out — quite unnecessarily — that the phrase “red-hot” is often used hyperbolically in the name of making a point — e.g. “Johnny, don’t eat that hot dog, it’s red-hot.”

This was not a “Johnny, don’t eat that hot dog” situation.

This is the only place in America where you get to do this. You can’t do this in a museum.

Eric Johnson, blacksmith

Amber sparks flew from the glowing tip of the metal with each strike of the hammer, a quiet — well, OK, not quiet — reminder that even in the old Gingrich blacksmith shop, a place so authentically historic it somehow feels simulated, that what this girl was doing was about as real as it gets.

“It’s rather delicate,” blacksmith Eric Johnson said.

Johnson has spent the past 25 Memorial Days in Boalsburg, making the roughly three and half hour drive from West Virginia so that he can help forge the next generation of blacksmiths — or at the very least entertain a few kids. He’s joined every year by John Wood, a fellow blacksmith and a preservation and restoration specialist with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office in Greenville.

Both of them enjoy visiting the blacksmith shop on East Main Street, which is now owned by Harris Township and managed by the Boalsburg Heritage Museum, but remains steeped in a history that dates back to when the building was associated with a coach works factory that opened in 1854.

Johnson said that many of the sharp, heavy-looking objects of terror that shall henceforth be referred to as “blacksmith tools” adorning the shop are originals — including a Swedish-wrought, iron-based anvil with a steel top, the perfect accent piece against which to bash hot pieces of metal.

It’s the shop’s unique blend of functionality and historical import that keeps the blacksmiths rolling through Boalsburg year after year.

“This is the only place in America where you get to do this,” Johnson said. “You can’t do this in a museum.”

Shortly after the young lady blacksmith broke for lunch, a boy who had been waiting eagerly on the fringes of the crowd stepped up to take her place.

According to Johnson, the boy was a repeat customer, someone who had been popping up at the shop regularly on Memorial Days past.

This year, he was helping Johnson and Wood forge a mid-19th-century fork.

“A lot of times they don’t think they can pick up a hammer and they’re just timid,” Johnson said.

To ease the kids into a process that from the outside appears incredibly complicated, Johnson and Wood break it down into its most basic parts.

Wood said that many of their students pick up the trade quickly.

Memorial Day 2016 could even one day be remembered as the moment where many of the future’s foremost blacksmiths got their start.

“You never know who you’re inspiring as you do that,” Wood said.

During the lunchtime break, Paula Ralph, of the Boalsburg Heritage Museum, presented Wood and Johnson with certificates in honor of the time they have donated to the community over the past 20 years.

Johnson just seemed grateful to be able to spend Memorial Day in a place rich with history.

“Growing up here would be awesome,” Johnson said. “You could walk around in history every day.”

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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