History museum visitors keep traditional trade alive
As he heated iron in his portable forge Saturday, Randy Hittle explained to children watching him that blacksmithing was once a common but vital trade.
“Back in the day, the blacksmith was the man,” he said. “People went to the shop for everything — repairing wheels, shoeing horses, repairing tools for the farm.”
Hittle traveled Saturday from Mayetta to the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society’s Look Back in Time Festival to display a trade nearly forgotten in an age when metal is worked in machine shops with such tools as TIG welders and plasma cutters. It was an interest he acquired from seeing what others working in the blacksmith tradition produced.
“I’m a tight wad,” he said. “I wanted all this fancy stuff, but I didn’t want to pay for it.”
With two years at the forge and anvil, he has much to learn about the trade, Hittle said. Among those from whom he was learning were two blacksmiths who also traveled Saturday to Tonganoxie, Wayne Keighley of Hiawatha and Richard Riepe of Harrisonville, Mo.
Keighley, the resident blacksmith at Indian Caves State Park near Falls City, Neb., shared Hittle’s forge on occasion Saturday. He also had for sale a number of the fancy items that drew Hittle to the trade. Those items included grilling forks with iron twisted around blue marbles and heart-shaped potholders.
Hittle kept busy Saturday making fire strikers, which he said he would probably make available to Boy Scouts. As he first heated the metal and then pounded it into shape, he got advice from Riepe, who pulled two clinkers — or pieces of spent coal slag — out of Hittle’s forge so that it would burn hotter.
Riepe, the grandson of a blacksmith in the Katy Railroad’s Parson shop, has been at the trade for 25 years. He learned from Steve Robinson, the former blacksmith of Silver Dollar City and the only American to receive Russian master credentials in the trade.
“They still honor blacksmithing over there,” Riepe said. “If you are in metallurgy or similar finds, you study blacksmithing, similar to what they did in Kansas a generation ago.”
The source metal Hittle was using Saturday was an old farm implement spring. All blacksmiths are scavengers as they search for suitable steel with the right carbon content, Hittle and Riepe said.
“We’re all junkyard blacksmiths,” Riepe said. “Most of us just have a pile of rake springs, leaf springs, coils springs or whatever kind of springs you find that have good steel in them.”
Although Riepe wasn’t doing any blacksmithing Saturday, he did bring three albums filled with pictures of his work, ranging from flowers forged from railroad spikes to a gate for a historic Lawrence home.
In addition to practicing the craft, Riepe also teaches classes in basic and intermediate blacksmithing through the University of Missouri at Kansas City’s Communiversity. His next class in intermediate chain mail making will be May 14 at the Renaissance Festival grounds in Bonner Springs.
Beginning classes focus on controlling the forge, while intermediate classes require students to master forge welds, Riepe said. That last skill is central to blacksmithing and is accomplished by tapping two pieces of steel placed together, which were heated to just short to their melting point, he said.
“Students will forge weld three chain links,” he said. “If they don’t break, they pass.”
It is an indication of the interest in blacksmithing that his classes usually have a waiting list, Riepe said. The students want to learn to make useful items or connect with blacksmiths in their family trees, he said.
Keighley said there was another benefit of the trade for him.
“This is relaxation,” he said. “People don’t believe me when I tell them I stand next to a 2,000-degree fire on a 100-degree day for relaxation.”
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