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Way it Was – Blacksmith series

Sherilyn Fritz of Middleton, N.S., sent us a copy of her book Yester Years at Port George, featuring material collected by her mother-in-law, Elma Fritz, which includes a wonderful story about the town’s blacksmith shop. Elma was one of the blacksmith’s three daughters who grew up in the shop during the early 1900s. We loved the story so much we decided to share it in its entirety as a three-part series. Written by Elma’s sister, Faye Foster, and published in the local paper in the 1970s, here is the first installment of Faye’s childhood memories of her father’s shop.

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The Blacksmith's - Part 1: The Shop

The Blacksmith’s – Part 1: The Shop

On hearing that the community of Port George was to be featured in the Nova Scotia Museum, memories of childhood days came flooding back. It is sad to realize that so many of the old landmarks have already passed into oblivion. Those who were children, as I was, in the 1920s, recall the three wharves constructed to form a safe haven for boats, good smelt fishing, calm waters for swimming and a gravel beach for building sandcastles. Nearby was a group of fish houses (phew!), Aunt Amaret’s house and store, Maggie’s and Bob Weaver’s stores, and the subject of this story, my dad’s old blacksmith shop.

The blacksmith has been gone since 1945, but the shop stood there vacant until 1970 when it was torn down. Elma, my sister who lived in the old home across the road, could not hold back the tears as she watched the old building brought to the ground. The dust of the years filled the air like a black cloud and hung there for some time after the old timbers, protesting to the last, yielded to the tractor.

My grandfather, William MacKenzie, who died before I was born, built the shop. No one seems to know the date of the building but I have an old ledger of Grandpa’s and the earliest date I have found is 1882. He followed in his father Robert MacKenzie’s footsteps. Robert did blacksmith and ironwork for the ships being built in Port George from 1840 to 1880.

The shop, like any blacksmith shop, was built for a purpose, not for aesthetic value. It was a no-nonsense structure with four walls, a floor and a roof, windows on all sides and a huge double door in front. A cupola on the roof helped to relieve the stark simplicity of the building.

The windows were blackened with soot so there wasn’t much light and, of course, there was no electricity. When Papa had to work after dark, we would take down the Coleman gas lantern, which was a wonderfully modern improvement over the old kerosene lantern.

There was a sign over the door proclaiming E. MacKenzie as proprietor and a yellow horse weathervane on the roof. It fell off and was broken during a Bay of Fundy gale and when Papa was repairing it, I remember my great surprise to see how large the horse was-it looked so tiny swinging up there on its iron rod.

There was barely room for the shop in that location. The north end hung out over the ledge and when the waves flung their salt spray over the rocks at high tide, it did nothing to improve vision through the sooty windows. Mrs. David Fritz, an older resident of the area, remembers that at one time a horse and wagon could be driven around the rear of the shop, but through the years the inevitable erosion had taken its toll.

The west wall was hung with all kinds of tools, wire and metal. A high counter-like shelf ran the length of one wall for a workbench, as a blacksmith did all kinds of repair work when there were no horses to be shod. There was always a pile of clean wood shavings, which made lovely curls for little girls to play with…

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The Blacksmith's - Part 2 - The Craft

The Blacksmith’s – Part 2 – The Craft

I remember the forge on the north wall and the smell of coal smoke mingled with burnt horsehair, and more than a whiff from the men’s old tobacco pipes. When Papa was busy at the anvil, he sometimes asked us to pump the bellows to keep the coals glowing in the forge. My sisters and I felt very proud, though it was hard work for skinny little arms and usually required two pairs to make the dying fire come to life again.

I think the happiest times were when we were alone with Papa in the shop. He would give us a small board and we would hunt through the dirt where the horses had stood for the sharp ends of the nails clipped off from their shoes. It was fun but scary too when Papa made the sparks fly as he hammered the red-hot iron shoes into shape on the heavy anvil, then dipped them into a tank of water, which gave off a pleasant hissing sound. The pounding of the anvil was almost loud enough to split the eardrums, but it had a nice ring and rhythm.

The northeast corner of the shop was filled with the ox slings. The oxen were placed into a canvas hammock, drawn up nearly to the ceiling and held there with feet sticking out in all directions while their new shoes were being fitted. Do not imagine the blacksmith enjoyed it very much and it is certain the huge oxen did not either, as they protested throughout the whole operation.

We used to notice that the men would occasionally step in behind the ox slings and stand facing the wall for a few moments, which seemed a strange thing to do. On investigating, we discovered a curious contraption-the shell of an old ox horn stuck right through the wall.

We inquired of Papa, who said it was a urinal. My little sister Mullie-who had her own version of the English language-piped up, “What’s a yorney?” but Papa didn’t seem inclined to explain any further. We soon drew our own conclusions though, as we often played on the rocks behind the shop. We thought it would be fun to try it, but as it was in a position over our heads, and being girls, the opportunity never arose.

Shoeing horses was very different from shoeing oxen. The horses were tied to a ring in the wall and their bodies were free to protest at will. Most horses were calm and stood quietly on three legs, but not all. One of our favourite games was “shoeing horses.” One sister was the horse, usually a very skittish animal who kicked vigorously, while another was the little blacksmith who worked hard to hold the stubborn foot between her knees while “hammering” on the shoe.

I expect my father’s hardest years of work were when western horses were brought into the province by the train-car load. These high-spirited beasts had not been broken-or perhaps they were not supposed to have been-but they certainly were not the steady, easygoing animals the farmers were accustomed to. Shoeing them was difficult as they had never been shod and the dark building and many people around must certainly have been terrifying, let alone the shoe-fitting itself.

There was always a gathering of men to watch. Nowadays, TV brings the vicarious thrills of hockey games, horror films and such, but that is nothing compared to being on the spot to watch the performance put on by a wild horse. Talk about a rodeo! Often they had to be blindfolded-a major project in itself-before they could be persuaded to step inside the shop.

They were beautiful creatures as a rule and I remember one magnificent team of greys especially. It took the farmer and his two able sons some time to get them unharnessed from the wagon and into the shop. We could hear the most terrifying racket, even from the house. Mother stood at the window watching and as the screams and pounding by the animals increased, so did mother’s praying. Our mother was not a swearing woman. She presumably didn’t realize that we were acquiring quite the vocabulary by quietly playing and pretending to be oblivious to the spicy conversation going on around us in the old shop. Sometimes though, Papa would remember we were there and send us to the house.

We stood at the window with Mama, listening and then watching the door burst open with the men tumbling out over each other in their haste to escape the hooves and teeth. The old shop must have been sturdy to have withstood these occasional shake-ups, but sometimes the kit of tools would be kicked into smithereens because, out of necessity, it had to be near the horses’ hooves.

Horseshoeing was on the decline during Papa’s later years, as tractors replaced farm horses. The small amount of work that came his way was mainly wood and iron work. Everyone felt that the day of the horse was over.

I expect that by the ’20s the pay was somewhat higher than in Grandpa’s day, but it certainly was no occupation for anyone aspiring to millionaire status. We knew the people in town had more luxuries than we did, but as we fared as well as our schoolmates and neighbours, we felt no sense of deprivation. The fact that Papa and Mama were both good planners as well as versatile craftsmen insured us against any real want.

The lack of money was never discussed, but we knew that many customers were slow about paying their bills. Papa would say, “I hate to push them too hard. I know they’d pay me if they could.”

This faith was justified when my father died suddenly at 68 years of age. The old Baptist Church was filled to overflowing at his funeral. And soon after, they started coming to Mama to settle their bills, most of them having no idea how much was owing as they had trusted Papa with the keeping of their accounts. One man came years later and asked Mama how much he owed as he, at last, was able to pay. Papa would have said to her, “Didn’t I tell you they’d pay me if they could?”

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The Blacksmith's - Part 3 - The Customers

The Blacksmith’s – Part 3 – The Customers

The blacksmith shop was not only a business establishment, it was also a social centre for the men. Many of the world’s problems were settled here on stormy days. The regulars occupied the three or four old ladder-back chairs while the rest perched on ox slings, sawhorses or nail kegs, thoughtfully chewing tobacco or smoking their cherished old pipes.

Local doings, of course, held first position but not all of it was gossip. News of sickness or trouble travelled in this way and someone of the party was always available to help a neighbour in need. They wasted no time on organizations or committees. Whoever could spare the time and was capable automatically elected himself to “do as he would be done by.”

Politics, I suspect, was next in importance and hot and furious were the arguments when election time drew near. There was no listening to the other side; you were either a Tory or a Grit and that was that. Mama disliked arguments and used to say she’d rather hear it thunder but Papa was a great one to argue. I rather think he shifted from one side of the issue to the other just for the sake of keeping it going.

One old codger would sum up his feelings by saying, “Ah don’t know much but what Ah knows, Ah knows!” The old codger-a large man with a high, shrill voice -and a little chap less than five feet tall used to keep up a running battle on what they read in the papers. One would say, “I seen such and such in the Outlook,” and the other would reply, “I never seen that, what I seed was…” This exchange would prove highly amusing to the listeners, especially as they were well aware that neither had ever learned to read. We girls got a kick out of the man who began practically every sentence with “Sez I to him,” or “Sez him to me,” and when he got really excited it would be “Si” instead of “Sez I.” We found it much more interesting than a plain old “I said,” but Mama didn’t approve when we tried adding it to our vocabulary.

One of the regulars was George Abbott Gilman who was always called by his last name. He must have created something of a sensation in his early days of residence in Port George as I believe his past was a mystery he carried with him to his grave.

He was an American and must have had an independent income sufficient for his needs, as there was no Old Age Security in those days and the hardest work he ever did was to make a batch of orange marmalade on occasion. He appeared to be a well-educated man and one theory was that he was a doctor who had gone into exile after some kind of tragic mistake connected with his profession. At any rate, he seemed quite happy with his quiet life and daily trips to the store, shop and post office. He spoke often of his daughter, Elizabeth, and everyone in the village saved Buffalo nickels for him, which he sent to her in his letters. Mr. Gilman was a favourite with the children and always carried peppermints in his pocket for a treat.

There were many others to whom the shop was a club or sort of second home. Mama and Papa were both very hospitable and I think I would be safe in saying that we had guests for the noontime dinner at least three times a week. Many of the shop’s customers came from the surrounding communities and as far away as Port Lorne, Brooklyn and East Margaretville. Having to spend considerable time on the road with slow-moving farm horses or oxen, it was unthinkable that they be allowed to leave for home without a good warm meal under their belts-or between their suspenders perhaps I should say. Some frankly admitted that they timed the trip so they could have a nice visit at noontime.

I don’t believe my sister, Elma, was shy but Mullie and I were, so it is hard to understand why we enjoyed the steady stream of visitors so much. Probably it was the example set us by our parents. We certainly were exposed to all kinds of people: old, young, quiet, garrulous, clean and not so clean. One old chap who lived alone sometimes tried Mama’s patience when he insisted that he hadn’t been doing anything and so he had no need to wash his hands. Mama would say sternly, “Auss Brown, you are not eating at my table until you have a wash,” and he would laugh sheepishly, go to the sink and scrub furiously just to please her, not because he felt that it was in any way needful. As soon as he finished, Mama surreptitiously removed the towel and gave Papa a clean one. One of our favourite guests was a deaf mute who had to walk eight or ten miles from his home to get his oxen shod. It was an all-day event, so he often had supper with us before starting for home. Of course, he talked with his hands but that was pretty hard going so Papa and he would soon resort to pencil and paper. He was a jolly type of man and he and Papa would laugh heartily over their written messages. This of course aroused our curiosity, so Papa would relay their “conversation” and we all enjoyed the jokes together.

One day Mama said to me, “Why don’t you go to the shop anymore?” For some time I had gone down only long enough to call Dad-I was getting too old to call him Papa-to dinner. I answered slowly, “Oh, I don’t know. There are always men sitting around. Or horses there.” She replied, “There’s no one else there now. Why don’t you go down? Dad misses you.” So I went down. Dad found me a board and I pounded nails, but it didn’t seem to be fun anymore. Dad came over and sat with me but we couldn’t seem to think of anything to talk about. I didn’t know why, but I felt rather sad. I know now that my Dad felt the same, but being a wise person he knew the reason why. The years were slipping by, he was getting older and his little girls were growing up.