Forging history lessons at the fort

Volunteers back to helping visitors see past take shape

By Dave Kern, Columbian assistant metro editor

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The old met the new as 13-year-old Daniel Stepanyuk used his iPad mini to record blacksmith Tom Dwyer toiling at Fort Vancouver on Sunday.

Dwyer was pounding out nails and telling visitors of the work of the blacksmith more than 170 years ago.

"My dad really likes learning about history, and he would like to see everything they're doing," Daniel said. The Cascade Middle School student was at the fort with 11 of his relatives.

The fort reopened Thursday after the 16-day federal shutdown.

"If you needed nails for your cabin, you needed a blacksmith to make them for you," Dwyer told the visitors as he coaxed the red-hot iron into an old-fashioned square nail. "There was no Home Depot, no Lowe's."

He said during that 1820 to 1840 period 100 nails would cost a penny.

Dwyer of Camas said blacksmiths were busy making beaver traps (a beaver hat was the fashion of the day), tools, axes, chains and more.

"I never saw anybody make nails like that," Amelia Pilipchuk, 10, said. The Daybreak Primary School student called Dwyer's work "cool."

"I was always interested in history, and this is living history," Dwyer said. He is retired, has been volunteering at the fort for 15 years and formerly worked for Ducks Unlimited.

Blacksmith Rashelle Hams, also a volunteer and a Portland resident, said the coal-fired forge in the blacksmith shop gets to 3,000 degrees.

"It's nice when people seem to appreciate (the volunteers' work), and it's nice to impart the knowledge of how things were done," Hams said. She added, "This lets me work out my frustrations with traffic."

After visiting the blacksmith shop, Daniel and his relatives wandered the reconstructed fort with its 11 buildings.

"I was here in fifth grade," Serge Romanenko, 23, said. He said Sunday's visit brought back old memories and added, "It's educational … it's only 3 bucks (admission)."

Glad to be open

National Park Ranger Robert Gutierrez on Sunday said "a lot of people were upset, let down," when the federal shutdown closed the fort.

And the fort employees also were upset.

"It's not in our DNA to turn people away," he said.

He said his work is gratifying. And he noted, "a lot of people are coming from other states. And they're shocked at the history that's here."

He said recently a family from Florida came to the fort to learn more about a relative who lived here more than 150 years ago. He said they visited the grave of that relative, Charles Proulx, who lived here as early as 1833.

Gutierrez said the fort has hundreds of volunteers who love to bring history alive.

"We have a lot of people who are proud of our history," he said.