Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Bruce Teegarden helps Riley Mitchell, 11, put a decorative twist on a hook he forged during Hammer Heads blacksmithing club at Salomon Farm Park.
John Wooten instructs Joshua Pollock, 13, as he shapes the end of a hook. Wooten is one of two adults that supervise the Hammer Heads blacksmithing club.
Evan Holman, 14, keeps a watchful eye on his heated steel as he holds it to the flame.
Sunday, June 25, 2017 1:00 am
Kids hooked on blacksmithing
Club formed to help teach basics of trade at Salomon Farm
STEVE WARDEN | The Journal Gazette
It's almost noon on an overcast Saturday outside the Old Barn at Salomon Farm Park when Casey Mitchell asks his 11-year-old son, Riley, if he's about ready to head home. Riley says he is, but not just yet.
First he has to show off that seven- or eight-inch piece of shaped steel he's holding ever so proudly. It's a near-perfect “S” hook, decorative twists and all in the middle, he made that morning. Not bad for a first-timer at the Hammer Heads blacksmithing club sponsored by the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.
For an hour and a half, over three different Saturday mornings, kids from 11 to 17 years old are invited to learn the basics of being a blacksmith. While the very word conjures up visions of an old Western movie in which the town “smith” is hard at work hammering out a horseshoe, there isn't a horse within sight, and the only shoes are the two dozen or so displayed on the inner barn wall – open side up, of course, so the luck doesn't run out.
When Riley wonders what he'll do with the hook, his dad suggests giving it to his mom. Maybe as a plant hanger. “Underneath that awning in the front,” Casey suggests. “Mom's gonna need a couple more, so we're probably going to have to come back.” And young Riley glistens at the prospect.
He and five other boys, all between 11 and 14, signed up for the first session weeks in advance. Some out of curiosity; a few at the suggestion of their parents. The second class was a few weeks ago, and the last one of the summer will be July 15. But as Bruce Teegarden, who supervises the classes, explains, the shop is open the last Saturday of each month for the serious hobbyists or for those who want to get more experience.
“Salomon Farms calls me their blacksmith, I guess,” says Teegarden, 56, whose calm demeanor and encouraging comments make him the ideal instructor. “I love doing this stuff, and I love seeing kids get excited about it.
“We're just like the guys who work with wood. Our passion is metal. You either got it or you don't. Like these two young boys. They got it, or else they wouldn't be coming back here.”
Those “two young boys” are brothers Grant and Evan Holman. Grant is 12. Evan is 14. And they “got it.”
“My brother started the Hammer Heads program and I wanted to try it and see what it was like,” says Evan, his face dark with soot. “I've enjoyed it since.”
Because both boys have a year of blacksmithing under their belts, they helped show the ropes to the rookies this Saturday morning, serving as young assistants to Teegarden and the other adult on site, John Wooten. While Evan and Wooten shared the brick forge inside the cozy 20-foot-by-20-footbarn, Teegarden and Grant worked outside with a portable forge that has its own history.
“This is a Civil War forge,” Teegarden says. “It was a traveling forge. The blower comes off and folds up inside the box. They had four legs on it and they'd put those inside, and they'd head down the road. The legs on this were missing, so we had to make the legs, but this is from the Civil War era.”
In order for a forge to become hot enough to bend steel, two elements are necessary: heat and oxygen. Teegarden explains that bituminous coal, a soft coal from West Virginia that burns cleanly and without smoke, is ideal for the forge. To provide ample oxygen, a hose is attached beneath the coal bed and fed by a blower that must be cranked by hand. All the students, at one time or another, operate the blower.
Whether working inside or out, the boys are given a length of steel to heat, then shape on an anvil and jig. Teegarden, Wooten and the Holman brothers let the students know when the steel is hot enough to remove, and help them bend it.
“You're going to get that hot again,” Teegarden tells 12-year-old Declan Kaufmann, whose steel is beginning to cool. “What you want to do is get that tip on around there,” pointing to the bending jig. Kaufmann taps his hammer on the end and watches it bend. “Hit that tip again,” Teegarden says. “See, it's already starting to curl, so now what you want to do is lay it down.” Kaufmann puts the steel on its side and taps it a few times to level the bend. “Perfect,” Teegarden says.
Upon registration, students are told to wear long pants and something other than gym shoes. They'll be provided with gloves and protective goggles. The gloves, as fate would have it for Kaufmann and 13-year-old Joshua Pollock, were critical.
Pollock, working inside the barn, dropped his heated steel and picked it up at the hot end, burning his hand through the glove. A few minutes before, Kaufmann also felt the heat when he grabbed his steel.
“I'm good,” Kaufmann says after shaking his hand. “It was just surprising. … Getting burned is part of the process. You learn from your mistakes.”
It was Grant who told Kaufmann to dip his hand into the bucket of water used to cool the steel.
“He's been pretty helpful,” Declan says of his young mentor.
Dawn Holman watches her two boys interact with the novices and says each one has found his passion on these Saturday mornings. As Teegarden says, they got it.
Although he is younger, Grant's interest in the program intrigued his brother. At school, Grant would tell his teachers that he was learning blacksmithing.
“And they're like, 'Yeah. Right,' ” Dawn says. “So he had to start taking in his hooks and giving them as a gift. He took one to one of his teachers and she opened it up and was like, 'Did you make this?' And he said, 'Yeah. I told you. I blacksmith.' And she was like, 'I really didn't believe you at all.' ”
Teegarden says the kids are making more than “S” hooks.
“What we're making, more than anything, is making memories,” he says. “When they're 50 years old, they'll find that hook in a memory box somewhere and remember this day. So that's what we're really making.”