Tony Vagneur: Talking shop
It was still there until a couple of years ago, the shop, not far from the house. Built from boards sawed out of trees harvested off of Vagneur Mountain just behind the house, it withstood the ages. Even the roof was made from that lumber — 1” by 6”s overlaid and centered over 1” by 6”s overlaid over tar and it didn’t leak, not too much. It had a loft over half of the area, which if a curious kid could find a way to get up there he’d find more 1” by 6”s, stored for a rainy day, I reckon, tanned and forgotten deer hides, and an odd piece of this or that thrown up there out of frustration (or an offering to posterity) on a bad day.
Every ranch has a shop, or should have, for that is where the operation is held together, literally. Behind swinging doors, barely wide enough to allow entry of a tractor or grain drill, we repaired saddles and harness, sharpened mowing machine sickles, made our own bolts for repair jobs using a classic tap-and-die set, welded various machinery parts together and myriad other things that needed to be done.
The centerpiece, although it was built along the north wall, was a forge. People talk about or envision blacksmith shops, relying on movie or television memories; but unless you have a forge, there isn’t much of a blacksmith shop. It was made out of flat, gray rock, hauled down from an old abandoned gold mine on the eastern edge of our place. The miner’s cabin is still there, but not by much, and the hole he dug, about 30 feet straight down, looking for the precious metal, remains.
Off to the right of the forge was a bellows, positioned perfectly and strictly for coaxing the coal fire up to iron softening temperature. Immediately in front of the forge sat the anvil, a dark and trusty beast probably weighing 250 pounds or more. Perfectly situated, a smithy (or a rancher) could take a malleable piece of metal out of the forge and, with only a three-quarter about-face, be squarely positioned in front of the anvil.
Bruce Blake, who lived in Basalt and was a blacksmith in the truest sense of the word, also was the man who shod our horses. When blacksmithing began to die out from so many parts being made cheaply by factory machine, blacksmiths turned more and more to farrier work, which is to say that Blake did much more ironwork than just shoeing horses. In fact, you might say he was a metallurgical artisan.
Contrary to popular caricature, Blake was a fairly slight man with an admirable hump in his back, who, it seemed, always wore a black apron and always smelled like smoke from forge-burning coal. It would be impossible to say how many horses I held for him on uncountable hot summer afternoons, but it’d be a lot. Blake wasn’t one to talk much, but toward the end we struck up a tenable friendship based on mutual respect, simply because we spent all that time together.
While I rounded up the horses, Blake would lay his tools out and get the forge started. I’d tie the horses to the hitching rail, a couple at a time, and then go to work on the bellows, getting the fire hot. And it was my job to keep it fired during the entire process. The hot of the afternoon coupled with the unique heat of the forge, the smell of the coal fumes and the slight smoking of the horse’s hooves as Blake fitted the shoe; the natural smell of the horses and sweat, man and animal mixed, made for an unforgettable olfactory experience.
There was more to the shop than the forge, including the vice, which could hold metal and other materials in one position while one performed this or that operation on them. My dad, who might have been one of the best at shop work, also kept an acetylene torch close by in addition to the electric welder. We had tall wooden bins full of bolts and nuts and other stuff that even at that time could only be considered historical, but were kept in case they might be needed.
If ever there was a place to mesmerize a young kid for the entirety of a rainy afternoon, it was the shop.
A couple of days ago, we rounded up some old iron parts that have been hiding in various places for decades, pieces that belonged to long-forgotten equipment, and as I watched them casually tossed into my pickup truck, headed for the dump, my mind wanted to rebel and I had to stifle the thought, “No, don’t throw that away — it might come in handy in the shop.”
And today, like a dream, it is all only a memory.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.