Forging on 

Flathead blacksmiths keep the flame alive

In colonial America, nearly every village had a blacksmith to make and repair plow blades, pots, horseshoes and other metal items. Today, the American consumer is more likely to buy a new item at Wal-Mart than he is to get an old one fixed, and many tools that would take a blacksmith hours to create can be made in a matter of minutes via mechanized industrial processes. Given these factors, the art and craft of blacksmithing had nearly been relegated to the shelves of academia until the early 1970s, when American blacksmiths began coming together in the southeast, in part due to an urge toward community amidst ever-shrinking ranks. Out of those meetings came the Artist-Blacksmiths’ Association of North America (ABANA), which grew from about two dozen members at its formation to over 4,000 today. One ABANA chapter, the Northern Rockies Blacksmith’s Association, is active in the Flathead Valley, and last weekend, the association held one of its two annual meetings at Coon Hollow Forge—the shop of Kalispell blacksmith Dan’l Moore.

“The blacksmith was once known as the king of all the crafts because he made the tools that the wood, glass and steel workers used,” says Moore, a tall figure with the dirty hands and red beard of a blacksmith who bears resemblance to storybook depictions of Paul Bunyan.

Moore began learning how to be a blacksmith some 20 years ago in Idaho and honed his craft at the renowned Samuel Yellin Museum in Philadelphia, which doubles as a working blacksmith’s shop. His time there was “like going to grad school for a blacksmith,” Moore says, and though he averts his eyes with modesty while saying it, he admits that he has since joined the “upper echelons” of American blacksmiths.

Moore’s portfolio serves to reinforce the admission, featuring handmade work ranging from spectacular fireplaces to ornate lighting fixtures on which delicately wrought sunflowers circle around a lamppost sprouting metallic vines.

Moore played host to about 50 blacksmith enthusiasts—some working, others hobbyists—at his Coon Hollow Forge shop, which is littered with every kind of metal tool conceivable, corralled in rusted Drum tobacco tins. The shop’s telephone is as dirty as Moore’s filthy water bottle, evidence of the daily hazards in the life of a blacksmith, but behind these hazards lies a big idea, succinctly summarized by a sign hanging behind Moore’s propane-powered forge: “The best things in life are still made by hand.”

Attendees came mostly from Montana, but also from neighboring states and Canadian provinces, and even from as far away as California and Denmark. They came to exchange blacksmith jokes that would draw strange looks from the non-blacksmith populace, as well as a few war stories (a ferrier—or horseshoe maker—from Alberta spoke with pride about how he “only had to have [his] head sewn up once” when he got kicked “by a horseshoe with a horse attached to it”).

But most of all, they came to create; someone somewhere could always be found banging and clanging on hot steel fresh out of the forge, usually wearing earplugs.

Using a hammer made by his 12-year-old son, Moore led a workshop on crafting Poz tongs the old-fashioned way, and Bigfork’s Jeffrey Funk put on a show of sculpting and connecting tongs and a hammer from a single rectangular steel square. Funk’s metal sculpture can be seen in Missoula’s Caras Park, and several of those gathered were quick to name Funk as one of the top blacksmiths in the U.S.

“I came to the Flathead Valley in 1976 and met David Seacrest, who is one of the best in the world,” Funk says. “This valley, per capita, has more excellent smiths than almost anywhere.”

Funk says that he spends most of his time working for wealthy people, and though he finds satisfaction in creating things of beauty for them, he takes more satisfaction from passing on his knowledge to a younger generation at gatherings such as this.

That passing of the torch—or the forge—may be why Bozeman blacksmith Doug Adelmann’s eyes seem to light up like the incandescent orange of the metal on the anvil before him as his son, Adam, picks up a hammer to sculpt the heated steel into what will eventually become tongs.

“It’s a matter of passing on the trade,” the elder Adelmann says, looking over his son’s work.

“It’s a brotherhood,” says Moore. “It’s kind of like a fraternity,” though he adds that “there are a few really good women involved.”

The Kalispell gathering was largely male, but there were indeed a few females, one of whom was L.A.-based blacksmith Heather McCarty.

“A lot of crafts are kind of secretive,” McCarty said, after taking turns striking neon-hot metal with Moore during his workshop. “They don’t want to let you in on their secret. I’ve never met a smith like that. They’re so generous.”

They’re also, it seems, well aware of the historic role they play.

“Now, instead of being a young man mesmerized by the flame, I’m a carrier of the flame,” Funk says. “This is a manual and an oral tradition. There is very little in the way of blacksmith schools. Until recently, human culture was carried by traditions like this, and it’s an honor to continue this tradition.”

mike@missoulanews.com

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