Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Clark County History: Blacksmithing


Well into the automobile era, the manufacturing heartbeat of Clark County was its many blacksmith shops. Each community from Amboy to Camas boasted a forge at one time or another. Historians trace blacksmithing to the Hittites around 1500 B.C., when they discovered how to forge and temper iron and kicked off the Iron Age. Tools became stronger than stone.

Things made of iron were so important that explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark brought three blacksmiths on their expedition. Blacksmithing was invaluable in the remote West. Using a coal-fired forge, anvil and hammer, a smithy could make axles, axes and crowbars — as well as hinges for doors, hoops for wooden barrels, wagon wheel rims, pots and nails. They even made the tools they used — tongs, twisting bars, cold chisels and hammers.

George Aiken opened a forge outside of Fort Vancouver in 1840, running it for 10 years, beating out knives and beaver traps used by Hudson’s Bay Company employees and fur trappers. In 1856, S.P. Marsh blacksmithed at the fort. He ordered 29 tons of iron, which arrived via Cape Horn, and shared it with other blacksmiths for a small profit.

Starting at age 13, he blacksmith apprenticed for seven years. He learned how to use the primary tools of the trade — anvil, forge, hammer — and how to coax iron from a brittle, grainy crystal-like structure to a longer, more fiberlike form, increasing its strength and flexibility.

Horses were a chief concern of blacksmiths, and they made horseshoes and nails to protect animal hooves. The smithy removed old shoes and replaced them with new ones. If the horse was a trotter, the smithy gave it flat shoes. Workhorses, he gave shoes with heel and toe caulks. A full reshoeing in the 1890s ran about $1.25.

Veterinarians were rare, so blacksmiths practiced horse doctoring. One recipe for colic included sweet potassium nitrate, tincture of opium and sweet oil gruel mixed in corn and fed to the animal “two or three times a week.” A conditioning powder blacksmiths offered contained ground resin, sulfur, potassium nitrate and black antimony. 

Blacksmiths kept daily accounts of their work in a daybook, itemizing the work finished each day and logging their debits and credits. Client payment schedules were loose and usually not paid on the day work was done. With cash short, income often came as goods (meat, grain, vegetables and fruit) or services.

Because they knew metal and machinery, blacksmiths expanded their business as new transportation evolved. Some opened bicycle shops to sell and repair two-wheelers. Around the turn of the century, as cars gained popularity, they fixed or remade car parts. In La Center, Tom Headley and his son (also Tom) ran a blacksmith shop for 55 years. It closed in 1946.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.