On fire for heritage

Some weeks back, the little town of Spruce Pine hosted the second annual Fire on the Mountain. The festival attracted blacksmiths from all over the Southeast to this small community tucked in among the peaks of Mitchell County. But this wasn’t your typical conference where professionals get together to compare notes. Both Fire on the Mountain and the accompanying Blacksmith Art Exhibit were aimed at the general public.

It was a day of demonstrations, exhibits and hands-on experience. Co-sponsored by Spruce Pine Main Street, the Toe River Arts Council and Visit NC, the festival drew dozens of blacksmiths to the streets of Spruce Pine. And the enthusiastic sponsors have already set the date for next year’s edition (April 28, 2007).

The choice of Spruce Pine as the site was no accident. Historically, the area is something of a blacksmithing nexus. In the 1930s and ’40s, the brothers Boone operated a forge here, snaring the attention of craft enthusiasts all along the Atlantic seaboard.

Blacksmithing is an integral part of American history. Even today, every phone book contains a long list of people named Smith — evidence of how many blacksmiths once operated forges. Smiths were valued because they could do most anything; they were the engineers of their day, producing the tools needed for most any type of work. Blacksmiths made and sharpened plow points for agriculture and kitchen knives or hearth axes for domestic use; they forged chains and J-bars for pulling logs down hillsides, and they shaped wagon wheels and shod horses for transportation.

But at the turn of the last century, as tractors and automobiles became more available, the need for custom-made agricultural implements and wagon hardware lessened. The local smithy, a core component of many communities for two centuries, was quickly disappearing.

Daniel Boone VI and his brother Lawrence Boone (both direct descendents of the pioneer hero) came to national attention after they produced the reproduction iron hardware for Colonial Williamsburg. It took two-and-a-half years to complete the project, and the Boone brothers opened a shop on Beaver Creek Road in Spruce Pine to produce the work. At a time when American blacksmithing was in decline, the monumental commission was a godsend, infusing the little community with purpose. Afterward, the brothers went their separate ways. Daniel moved to nearby Burnsville, and Lawrence went to work in Asheville, doing restoration work for Biltmore Estate.

Fire on the Mountain drew a number of smiths with direct ties to Spruce Pine’s legacy. Nat Howell worked for Daniel Boone in Burnsville in the 1950s, and Nat’s son David carries on the family craft, producing traditional iron forms at the Mineral City Forge. For the Blacksmith Art Exhibit, Nat and David displayed work that links today’s contemporary energy with tradition.

Bea Hensley and Son Hand Forge was represented by the elder Hensley. Throughout the festival, he could be found surrounded by listeners soaking up his countless stories. Hensley grew up near the Boone forge and still reminisces about hearing the anvil ring out. When he turned 17, Hensley was lucky enough to apprentice with Daniel Boone and has since inherited his anvil.

The Penland School of Crafts, founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan, lies close to Spruce Pine. Penland’s former resident blacksmith, Elizabeth Brim, was among the first generation of women to work full time as professional blacksmiths, paving the way for others to enter a male-dominated field. Brim and Mike Queen, who owns Superior Construction & Repair, provided guidance to the town and the event organizers, helping ensure the festival’s success.

Daniel Boone VII, who today lives and works in Louisa, Va., is the son and grandson of Boone blacksmiths. He and his wife, Judy, operate Boone Forge there and boast of two blacksmith sons. For the festival, Daniel demonstrated how to shape hot metal using a gas-fired forge. A few lucky visitors even got to try their hand at striking, a particular hit with the 10-year-old set. The striker and the smith take turns swinging their hammers, giving a master smith two blows for his single effort.

The blacksmith history of Spruce Pine is double-stranded: Together, the legacy of the Boone forge and the energy of the Penland community produce a synergy of imagination and creativity. At Fire on the Mountain, the next generation of smiths was also evident, both in the demonstrations and in the eager young faces in the audience. A contingent of current and former students from Penland and from nearby Mayland Community College and Mitchell High School worked under school-sponsored tents. Others came from Warren Wilson College and Haywood Community College.

In recent decades, American blacksmithing has been on the upswing. At a regional blacksmiths’ convention in Georgia in 1973, a handful of smiths drafted a proposal defining the “artist-blacksmith” as one who unites the functional with the aesthetic. Thirty-plus years later, the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America is a mature organization whose 5,000 members promote blacksmiths and an understanding of ironwork worldwide.

Besides providing an entertaining afternoon, Fire on the Mountain was a link with an authentic heritage. In an age when much of American culture is intentionally fabricated for profit or celebrity, it’s a pleasure to experience a living tradition that inspires as much excitement and energy as ever.

[Anna Fariello, a professor at Western Carolina University, directs a project documenting North Carolina's craft revival. She also edited the visual-arts section of the newly published Encyclopedia of Appalachia.]

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