A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The significance and importance of the blacksmith in the frontier communities of the 1800s is eloquently documented by the renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1839 poem entitled “The Village Blacksmith.”  In this poem, Longfellow describes the hardworking nature and steadfast presence of the local blacksmith in his community.

Longfellow’s romanticized portrayal of the blacksmith indicates that they possessed a good deal of respect within American society at that time.  The first half of the 19th century is considered by historians to be the “golden age” of American blacksmithing due to the demand for metalwork in the latest communities on the distant frontier.

“Under a spreading chestnut-tree, The village smithy stands; The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands; And the muscles of his brawny arms, Are strong as Iron bands.”  That is a verse which many memorized while attending that common rural school out on the prairie.  That verse is one which you might have memorized when you attended that one-room school.

The inspiration for this poem is commonly believed to have come from the Cambridge smith, which the poet passed every day as he walked to his position at Harvard College.  However, Longfellow told his father he wrote it in memory of their seventeenth century ancestor, Stephen Longfellow, who was a blacksmith.  The tree in question was a horse-chestnut tree that was not far away from Longfellow’s home in Cambridge.

The poem was immensely popular and was routinely memorized by American school children through the 1950s.  I remember memorizing that poem as an eighth grade requirement for graduation from the rural school in Nebraska.  Longfellow was also one of eleven famous writers who were included in the “Authors” card game.

“Authors” was an early version of the family of “Go Fish” games.  It was an educational game for three to five players.  The object of the game was to form complete sets of the four cards comprising the works of a particular author.  I remember playing that game after supper at the old round kitchen table which showed years of regular daily use.

By 1860, the United States census recorded 7,504 blacksmith shops and 15,720 workers employed within them.  It also listed blacksmithing as the fourth most popular trade after lumber milling, flour milling, and shoemaking.  At a time when the United States population hovered around thirty million, this was a significant number of people employed in blacksmithing and illustrates the demand for this service.

In the latter part of the 1800s, the significance of blacksmiths shifted as industrialization mechanized the process of many trades.  Mass production threatened to replace the work of blacksmiths, as it allowed for faster and more cheaply made products that could be replaced instead of repaired.

The making of nails is perhaps one of the best examples of this change to mass production.  Before 1850, blacksmiths forged nails at a rate of one per minute, which made them relatively scarce and expensive.  Nails on the early frontier proved so valuable that arsonists would burn down buildings just to collect the nails left behind.  By the end of the 1800s however, machines could make hundreds of nails per hour and at a cost that made nails easily replaceable instead of prized.

It was near the end of the 1800s that blacksmiths responded to the industrialization by turning their attention to shoeing horses and making and repairing wagons and carriages.  Factories had not yet replaced these products with a machine.  Also, the increasing movement of people from farm to city required reliable transportation.

The blacksmith shop was always one of the first businesses established in any frontier community.  It was hard to imagine a world without the clang of a hammer on an anvil.  Most of the stage stations along the Ft. Pierre to Deadwood trail which were about fifteen miles apart, consisted of a blacksmith shop, corral, barn, outhouse, hand dug well, and living quarters where meals were served and mail distributed.

On May 15, 1904, western Gregory County was opened for settlement.  By June 23, 1905, Gregory was boasting 250 buildings and 500 inhabitants.  It had three hotels, a restaurant, two newspapers, three livery barns and three blacksmith and machine shops.

In 1913, the Rosebud Editorial Association published a one-hundred page supplement to the weekly papers of the area entitled A Rosebud Review.  It contained an ad from the Grau Garage in Carter which was “Second to None in the State.”  It was “fully equipped with steam and electric vulcanizers, lathe, press drill, forges and all machinery necessary for car repairing.  Competent blacksmith for welding and anvil work.  Electric lighted for night work.”

It was reported that Fairfax had “two blacksmith shops, a livery stable, an auto garage, three attorneys, two doctors, a vet, and a plumber.”  Herrick had “two blacksmith shops, one sanitary barber, to auto garages, four livery stables, a bakery and grocery store.”

A search of the Journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back reveals thirty four different times that “blacksmith” is mentioned.  Private William Bratton was apprenticed to a blacksmith at an early age.  He became an excellent gunsmith and blacksmith.  He was of great service to the “Corps of Discovery” as they could not bring everything they needed.  Much of his work was exchanged with the Indians for food.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on February 15, 2023

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