Blacksmith Returns to Craft

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on March 18, 2001

Stan Gove pulls an iron rod, its tip glowing red, from the coals of his forge. With a few well-aimed taps from his hammer, he shapes the end of it into what he calls “Piglet’s tail,” with a nod to Winnie the Pooh.

The Orleans, Mass., (pop. 1,699) resident works with an easy familiarity around the forge and anvil, periodically returning the rod to the coals between poundings, bendings, and twistings until it’s finished: a simple household hook from which a pot might have hung in a Colonial home.

You’d never guess Gove’s forge has gone unused for years.

A restoration carpenter after returning from Vietnam, he turned to blacksmithing around 1970 to create the iron hinges and handles he couldn’t find elsewhere. But by the mid-1980s, Gove and his wife, Dianne, realized blacksmithing wouldn’t put their daughters through college, so he returned to construction work. Now that their daughters are grown, he’s returning to his forge.

“It’s in my blood,” he says. “I can’t throw it away.”

Smithing is certainly in his blood. Seven years after opening his first forge, he learned his Swedish grandfather was a blacksmith and had built a shop nearly identical to his.

It’s an old craft, and blacksmithing, the art of creating items from wrought iron (today cold or hot rolled steel is used), was once a more widespread profession.

“Originally, blacksmiths did everything,” from fashioning pots and latches to shoeing horses, says LeeAnn Mitchell, executive secretary of the Artists-Blacksmiths Association of North America (ABANA).

But by the end of the 19th century, smithery had become a casualty of the industrial revolution. Then the 1920s saw a brief rebirth of the craft. High schools offered blacksmithing in their trades programs, and portable forges and tools could be found on the pages of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. But smithies went cold again with the Great Depression and didn’t enjoy a resurgence until the back-to-the-earth movement of the ’60s. Formed in 1975 with 25 members, ABANA now boasts an international roster of 4,800.

Gove acquired his skills from a blacksmith at Old Sturbridge Village, a “living history” Colonial village in central Massachusetts. “He taught me the time-honored way, by letting me look over his shoulder,” recalls Gove.

Gove set up his first smithy in the garage of his Peterborough, N.H., home and began crafting chandeliers and kitchen and fireplace utensils typically used in early American homes. In the early ’70s, the Goves moved to Cape Cod where he built a freestanding forge and shop to match their 200-year-old Cape-style house.

A massive hand-bellows feeds air into the coals, heating them to the desired 2000 degrees, and a “quenching” trough filled with water stands ready to cool the metal. To augment orders placed by locals and tourists, he fashioned fireplace “cranes” for a homebuilding company.

“People were always stopping by the shop, especially in summer, and they’d bring their children,” Dianne recalls. “As time went on, the kids grew up, went to college, got married, and had kids of their own, and they’d still stop by.”

Gove loved the slow-paced lifestyle. A small, hand-printed sign on the shop’s door reads, “If you’re in a hurry, you came to the wrong place.”

Particularly proud of his skill in creating reproductions, Gove tells of a man who brought him a one-of-a-kind candleholder to repair. Gove offered to repair it for free if he could copy the design to make one for his wife. The customer agreed, but when he came to retrieve his repaired candleholder, he picked the wrong one.

“When I told him that was the copy, he thought I was trying to keep the original,” Gove says. “I was proud he couldn’t tell the difference.”

Fourteen years ago, Gove closed his forge and removed his “Early American Ironware” sign, but people continued to stop and ask when he would reopen. Now his sights are set squarely on repairing the torn bellows, rehanging the sign, and firing up the coals.

“I was on a treadmill,” he says, “but now I’m getting back to what I love.”