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Blacksmith shop keeps old skills alive


The village blacksmith, immortalized in the Longfellow poem, was a key part of a colonial settlement. In Heathsville, a group of volunteers has preserved these skills and traditions for future generations.


The metal worker's art

Doug Reed, right, and Turner Williamson

Some people who have moved to the Northern Neck in recent years have learned new skills they never expected to acquire. After visiting the blacksmith shop at Rice's Hotel/Hughlett's Tavern in Heathsville, they have been overtaken with the sudden desire to learn to become a "smithy."

Such desires are actually encouraged.

Since their blacksmith shop opened in July 2004, a group of volunteers at the Tavern has been mastering the art of 18th century metallurgy.

The working blacksmith shop, with brick forge, was built by all volunteer help – “the Rangers” – who’ve taken the lead in many restoration projects associated with the Heathsville landmark.

“We’ve formed a Blacksmithing Guild, much like the Quilting Guild that’s based at the Tavern,” said guild president John Brauer.

“Members are learning the art of blacksmithing and are providing demonstrations for school and tour groups. The products we make will be sold in the Tavern gift shop.”

The forge itself is based on the ones at Colonial Williamsburg. Several Williamsburg blacksmiths, in fact, lent their advice and knowledge to help the Rangers get it exactly right. The forge burns bituminous coal to produce the heat necessary to bend and shape hard metal. Since it opened, the blacksmith shop has become an important educational tool within the area.

“We hold demonstrations from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. each Tuesday and Thursday, and every third Saturday of the month,” Brauer said.

“We dress in period costume and teach kids what it was like to live in the Northern Neck in the 18th and 19th centuries, when there were no cars, no electricity and no stores where you could buy things. If you needed something, you had to make it.”

Brauer says the blacksmith shop has been a big success and is getting good support from within the community. Recently a local resident donated a number of antique tools, which Brauer said are worth $2,000.

Visitors to the forge are not only welcome, but are urged to join the guild. No experience is necessary, and Brauer says participants will learn the practices of traditional and modern blacksmithing.

Next to the blacksmith shop, an education building is under construction. When completed, this addition will provide a kitchen, restrooms and meeting spaces for the guild and other community groups.

“The guild is still in need of many tools, as well as the travel trailer. Any donations would be greatly appreciated and help us carry out our work,” Brauer said.

Brauer noted that the guild is a 501c3 non-profit, and that donations may be tax deductible.

“Old blacksmithing tools are better off when used as a teaching tool than left to rust away,” Brauer said.

To make a donation or ask a question, contact John Brauer at (804) 435-2142.