Thrusting his tongs into a hot forge, Darold Rinedollar, 73, pulls a glowing strip of metal from the coals. For a few seconds, sparks spray like a fiery fan from the white-hot steel.
"This is what 3,000 degrees looks like. What you see is steel disintegrating," the bearded blacksmith tells spectators at Old World Wisconsin, an open-air "living history" museum near Eagle, Wis. (pop. 3,117).
Standing four deep inside the sooty blacksmith shop, onlookers "ooh" and step back-then crowd forward as Rinedollar plunges the hot steel into a tub of cool water.
A blacksmith for more than half a century, Rinedollar pursues his craft with the tools and techniques of two eras-making horseshoes, hooks and tools of the 1880s part of the year as a historical interpreter in Wisconsin, then returning each winter to his contemporary blacksmith shop in Clarksville, Mo. (pop. 490), to fashion gates, fences and ornamental art.
"I live in two worlds and have the best of each," says Rinedollar of his balancing act. "But I feel most at home in the past. I don't grab a machine to solve a problem; I figure it out with a hammer."
At Old World Wisconsin, Rinedollar explains why his trade was important to America's early settlers. "The blacksmith made nails, nuts, bolts, wagon wheel rims and horseshoes," he says while pounding an "S" hook with his hammer. "He used horse clippers to give men haircuts or, if they needed a tooth pulled, he had the tools. But blacksmiths lost out after the Industrial Revolution because machines made everything cheaper."
Pointing to horseshoes nailed to the rafters of the 1886 shop, Rinedollar tells visitors how some blacksmiths adapted to the economic transition by shoeing horses. "There are more horses today than during the 1800s, but there isn't a machine that can shoe a horse. Men still have to do that," says Rinedollar, who has shod race and show horses at state fairs in Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Tennessee.
As Rinedollar hammers, onlooker Tom Mulick, 69, snaps photographs of the blacksmith at work in his leather apron and wool cap. "He's so authentic. He likes what he's doing, and he's very thorough," says Mulick, of Elk Grove Village, Ill. "He makes a great photo."
Though the picture seems outdated to most people, Rinedollar epitomizes the tradesman who bridges the history of a bygone era with the skills, tools and market of a modern-day blacksmith.
Working in his Missouri shop during the off-season, he twists, loops and folds steel into chandeliers, spiral staircases, cemetery banners and massive gates. Through his contemporary work, he's created candlesticks for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., elaborate grillwork for a bench at Cedar Hurst Museum in Mount Vernon, Ill., and ornamental ironwork for clients across the world.
Rinedollar's own love affair with fire and steel began when, at 15, he apprenticed with Fred and Henry Mueller, German immigrant blacksmiths in Ithaca, N.Y. For five years, he started the fire for his instructors, laid out their tools for the day, removed old horseshoes from animals and learned his trade.
"I loved taking a straight piece of steel and making something useful or decorative out of it," he says. "Steel is like clay, except instead of using your hands, you mold it with a hammer."
His clients appreciate his vision, artistry and exacting attention to detail.
"His joy comes from creating," says Merrell Henson, of Chesterfield, Mo. "Today, many people think, 'Just get it done.' He doesn't go there. He allows you to enjoy the process. People he works for love him."
One customer, for instance, thanked Rinedollar by cooking him Christmas dinner in her fireplace, using the utensils he made. Another doubled her order after he designed gates for her garden to incorporate the crown, jewels and family shield from her grandmother's broach.
Being well paid is less important to Rinedollar than being satisfied with his creations. Like blacksmiths from days gone by, he guarantees his workmanship for life.
"I have to feel proud of it," he says. "I chisel my name on it when it's finished. I tell customers, 'You paid for it, but it's still mine.'"