Friday, August 28, 2009

Book Review: The Village Blacksmith

The book The Village Blacksmith by Aldren A. Watson presents a classic overview of the role of the blacksmith in American small town life. First published in 1968, Watson’s text and artistic line drawing details show the work and methods of the village smith.
Watson had a rich carreer as an author of books on craft, an illustrator, and a painter. Educated at Yale, he claimed to be self-taught in craft and art. Living in Vermont, his work looked to the past and emphasized the nature of American craft and craftsmen.

The illustrations that accompany the text are simple but elegant. They capture the tools and hardware of the shop. This book does not teach how to be a blacksmith, but about the blacksmiths of the past and their lives. It has a solid grounding in craft and history. His text and illustrations detail how to build a brick forge and bellows. The appendix also includes excerpts from Blacksmith’s Day Books to show the type of work done and the prices charged for the work. Watson’s book is interesting to read, and provides an overview rather than comprehensive detail. He discusses the production of wrought iron, the tools used by the smith, and the hardware and tools make in small shops throughout American history. It is a nostalgic but informed look back at an earlier time.

This book is available used, and has been reprinted as The Blacksmith: Ironworker and Farrier. It can be found here.

A short biography can be found here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Harvests

By mid-August summer has peaked in this part of New York, and the Lippitt Farmstead is harvesting crops to store for the winter. It has been a good growing year with plentiful rain. The farmers here at the Museum grow the crops to present traditional farm life, but also because they are needed and used. Our animals will live this winter on the hay grown this summer.
Some of the grains will go to the farm and some to the farmhouse. They will be used to make pancakes and bread. Barley and hops are used to demonstrate making the weak, bitter “table beer” made on farms.
The hops were traditionally used both on the farm and sold as a cash crop. In the 19th century this region’s hops were sold to brewers all over North America!
Our corn is still filling out. Most of it was traditionally harvested late and dried as a grain. Dried corn could be ground into cornmeal or used whole in chowders and soups.

Late summer’s harvest is one of the busiest times on the farm. Our summer is long, but our first frost is coming in about a month. There is a lot to do and harvest before then!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Reap What You Sow

Hundreds of fourth grade boys come to the blacksmith shop each year and many of them ask if we make swords. After their initial disappointment I try to lure them into a discussion of the farmers’ scythe. A well-made scythe blade is lighter, sharper, and harder to forge than a sword. A sword may never be called upon to make a crucial cutting stroke, while every stroke of the scythe is important to the farmer. A farmer in the 1840s may have carried his scythe in the field for several weeks each year, swinging its razor edge through hay, rye, barley, oats, and wheat. From before dawn until dusk the strokes of the scythe harvesting fodder and grain put security in the barn and money in the bank. (whetstone for sharpening a scythe blade)
Day-long use of a scythe is demanding work. It is not particularly hard to swing the scythe once. But a farmer reaping (another word for cutting) in midsummer may easily make 30,000 strokes with the scythe. To do that you must use more than your arms. The reaper’s whole body twists with each stroke, coiling and uncoiling from shoulders to waist. Harvesting day after day requires a reaper to become as efficient with the blade and snathe (handles and shaft of the scythe) as an Olympic swimmer is with his stroke. Each stroke, breath, and step is a synchronized movement. No motion is wasted.
The Lippit Farmstead has grown a prize crop of grains this year. Here is a picture of their Wheat and Oats, which won 1st prize in the Otsego County Fair.
At the farm, the scythe has been used to mow hay and reap rye, barley, oats, and wheat. A second crop of buckwheat is growing now and will be mown in September. These grains formed the foundation for daily life in the 19th century. Barley brewed your beer, buckwheat pancake broke your morning fast. Wheat and rye made your bread. This just shows that the old adage is true, you reap what you sow.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Flint and Steel

A flint and steel would have been a common tool in the 19th century. A steel “striker” is used to strike a piece of chert or flint. The resulting sparks are caught on a piece of charred cloth or other easy to light tinder. A small glowing coal forms. That ember is used to light tiny shavings of wood, which in turn is used to light your kindling. Lighting a fire took patience and skill.
The striker is forged from high carbon steel and is quenched hard. The sparks are caused by the flint scrapping tiny slivers of steel from the striker. Friction heats them up and they burst into flame, making tiny sparks. Those sparks are burning over 2,000 degrees F.
A flint and steel is fun to experiment with, and would still work to light your fire. One of my fellow staff members is shown in these pictures, and uses his flint and steel daily through the winter to light his fire. It took him less than a minute after starting to strike flint and have burning tinder. I envy his skill. I don’t use one as often or well, and am thankful for matches.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dew on the Buckwheat

The weather this summer has provided challenges for both farmers and travelers. We seem to shift from bright sunshine to torrential rain every two days. While that has made it difficult for farmers to harvest their crops, the crops themselves are lush and green. Our Museum has rarely looked more green and inviting. The July sun usually bakes the grass brown by the first week of August. Not this year!

Here are a few pictures of the Museum behind the scenes from the first week of August, 2009.
The Carousel looks beautiful framed by the trees.
The historic Village looks freshly washed by yesterday’s downpours. There is fog rolling off the mountains above the Lippit Farm and Otsego Lake. There is dew on the Buckwheat. It was planted less than 3 weeks ago, and has sprung from the ground with great vigor.
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