- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) - Nowadays, many people think of a blacksmith as someone who makes horseshoes and nails them onto the animal’s hooves.

Richard Wright, a blacksmith who has been in the trade for more than 30 years, showed visitors at the Lawrence History Center recently that the men who labored at forges did much, much more than that. In fact, among the nails, bolts, chisels, hinges, tongs and other iron and steel items that abound in the shop, not a single horseshoe could be found.

The blacksmiths who worked in that shop in the late 19th century made all of the metal parts required by the Essex Company, which operated at the present-day site of the Lawrence History Center at 6 Essex St. and controlled all of the water power upon which Lawrence’s textile mills relied.

The company built the canals and dams that made that water power available, explained Susan Grabski, executive director of the Lawrence History Center.

Wright, of Troy, New Hampshire, clad in a thick leather apron and gloves, showed visitors how the blacksmith would take a piece of iron with a set of tongs, place it in the charcoal fire until it was red hot and then hammer it into shape on an anvil.

Hammering the piece on its end makes it wider, he pointed out.

In a scene from a Walt Disney movie about the Wild West or an episode of “Bonanza,” you might recall watching a blacksmith pound into shape a horseshoe or some other metal item, then thrust it into a pan of water, producing a cloud of steam.

That’s “only for Hollywood” and “probably baloney,” Wright said. It often makes more sense to let the metal cool down on its own, he said.

Wright used a hand-cranked blower to ramp up the charcoal fire. He worked in what used to be the Essex Company’s maintenance shop, which was built in 1883.

Wright also demonstrated how a blacksmith would make a hole in a piece of steel. He got the piece red hot, then took a punch, pounded it into the metal and made a three-eighths inch hole.

Until the 1920s and 1930s, when electric welding was developed, blacksmiths used fire welding to join pieces of metal.

A 19th century blacksmith typically served an apprenticeship of four to six years, Wright said. During those decades when the trade was in such high demand - and so essential to burgeoning industries - blacksmiths were specialized, Wright explained.

Some were experts at making horseshoes. Others spent most of their time forming nails, he said.

Blacksmiths made their own tools, Wright said, because they often needed a set of tongs or a hammer of a particular size.

Wright himself has made a variety of tools over the years, including a ball peen hammer, which is rounded on one end and flat on the other and which he showed to visitors. The hammer is used to pound metal into a certain shape.

Today, America imports many of the parts its industries need, including nails, bolts, nuts, screws and hinges, to name a few. Back in the mid- to late 19th century, however, when the Lawrence textile industry was growing by leaps and bounds, the blacksmiths of the Essex Company produced those same items right here in this city.

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Information from: Eagle Tribune (North Andover, Mass.), https://www.eagletribune.com


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