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August 31, 2004 > Rails and Fire!

Rails and Fire!

Washington Township Railroad Fair and Ardenwood's Blacksmith - A destination on Labor Day Weekend

All aboard for a weekend of steam engines and excitement as the 4th Annual Washington Township Railroad Fair pulls into town. Held at Ardenwood Historic Farm, the fair is a great time for all ages. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on September 4th, 5th, and 6th, Ardenwood will be alive with the whistles and motion of a steam train and horse train rides. Railcars will be on display for your inspection and railcar speeders will catch your eye as they move along the rails.

Ardenwood's numerous farm activities including the barnyard with animals and fascinating equipment will be open as well. Popular attractions including the historic Patterson House, the country kitchen and a rustic blacksmith shed filled with the sounds of hammer and tong shaping iron.

The rail fair will help visitors visualize the days when rail transportation crisscrossed the Tri-Cities and was one of the most important means of transportation from the farms and dairies of our area to consumers throughout the Bay Area. Another reminder of time honored skills that were essential to transportation and daily life of the 1800's will also be on view during the weekend. Comprised of the four basic elements-fire, earth, air, and water- the blacksmith was one of the centers of commerce of every town. The master craftsman toiled in his dimly-lit workshop, forge and anvil, hammer and tongs his tools, creating practical and fanciful objects of iron before a pit of flames.

At Ardenwood, Scott Thomas carries on this ancient art. Standing before a raised brick hearth outfitted with bellows to feed its soft-coal fire and a hood to carry away the smoke and using tools he has crafted, the blacksmith shapes the dark metal that has given him his name. It can be said that the blacksmith, hailed as "The Father of All Craftsmen", is responsible for civilization as we know it. The Iron Age blacksmith was the first to manipulate metal by heating the material until it was white-hot, then hammering it into the shape of a knife, creating the first tools known to humankind.

Blacksmiths were the first to master the art of making tools and without them no progress could have occurred. The stonemason, the carpenter, and even the tailor all relied on the metal tools created by the blacksmith.

"Without blacksmiths we wouldn't have much of what we have today," notes Thomas.

Look under "Blacksmith" in the phone book and you'll only find one listing-Scott Thomas, the resident blacksmith at Ardenwood farms for the past six years. Contracted by the farm, Thomson is in charge of, and responsible for, all maintenance of the 19th century wooden forge. While working in his shop, visitors can stop by and check out the talented blacksmith as he creates dinner bells, latches for gates and even nails.

The ABANA (The Artist Blacksmith's Association of North America), of which Thomson is a member, reports that about10% of its affiliates are considered working blacksmiths. The Tri-City area is lucky enough to have a member of this rare faction working in its own backyard.

Growing up in Newark, Thomas was a regular at the stables where his horse was kept and would sometimes observe the farrier (horseshoer) shoe his four-legged pet. Intrigued, he inquired as to how it was done and, within months, he was learning the skill. As his knowledge expanded and his collection of hand-made tools grew, Scott delved deeper into the world of blacksmithing

Although Thomas attended horseshoeing school, his more advanced blacksmithing skills were self-taught. When shoeing a horse, one must first learn the fundamentals of the blacksmith trade.

"In blacksmithing there are about eight basic moves, or procedures. Once you know those eight, and know the different ways of doing all eight, then you put them in order, sort of like learning a dance. You learn the basic steps and then you change the choreography. Blacksmithing is like that; sometimes you get to step number thirteen and realize that should have been step number four and now you're in a world of trouble because you can't get to step twenty-five...Sometimes it's like a puzzle-figuring out which order to do things."

Thomas took over the position at Ardenwood about six years ago. He is the fifth blacksmith to reside at Ardenwood and has made the shop every bit his own. The building that houses the shop is an original structure built in the late 1890's and was originally used for storing the farm equipment and shoeing the animals.

When he arrived at Ardenwood, the craftsman found only basic tools used in blacksmithing-a forge and blower, a simple post vice and an anvil. Everything else in the now chock-full shop he made, acquired or restored.

When asked what his motivation is to create his objects, Thomson simply replies, "I like making stuff."

From a pin for the farm's refrigerator to large iron cauldrons, if you need it, Scott can make it. Look around his workshop and you'll find barbecue tools, recreations of Celtic swords and even a delicate steel rose sculpture that Thomas created to test his artistic abilities. Thomas hand-crafted each tool he uses from hammers and anvils to chisels and nails. Sometimes, he says, he will have to stop work in the middle of a project to make a tool that he needs.

"Blacksmiths were the original recyclers," he affirms. "The shop would have piles of stuff lying about and they would go through their scrap piles first and if the found some scrap metal, you wouldn't be charged for the material." Salvaging old materials not only made blacksmiths more economical it tied the blacksmith to the horseshoe. Hundreds of years ago, you could bring an old horseshoe in to the blacksmith, accompanied by a bushel of apples, and he would make a gate latch for you, free of charge. In essence, Thomson says, finding an iron horseshoe was like finding money, thus associating it with luck.

A blacksmith does much more than make horseshoes, points out Thomson, who hears this misnomer constantly. Historically, blacksmiths were at the center of communities creating the tools people needed to live and work. "Blacksmithing was the industry. You had specialist blacksmiths who made things. Like doctors today, you have your general doctor, you eye doctor, your psychiatrist-all these different branches. Blacksmithing is the same way. You had your general blacksmith, who did a little bit of everything. You had the ornamental iron workers who did the fancy stuff. You had locksmiths, you had guys who all they did was make the keys."

When browsing through a book of blacksmith's iron work, Scott quips, "I look at this and I think "I don't know anything." Many of Thomson customers would disagree. As a working blacksmith, he is capable of creating or repairing almost anything people bring to him. He has been also commissioned by reenactment groups to create historically accurate weaponry, known as boffers. There are Scott does more than demonstrate his skills to visitors at Ardenwood. Blacksmithing is his livelihood and he depends on the various projects people bring to him,

Blacksmith demonstrations are held Thursday, Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit the park after November and you can still find Thomas diligently working away at his craft. Check out for more information.

Step inside the gates of Ardenwood farms and the change in scenery will astound you. The noise and movement of the freeway could be a million miles away as time takes over and you transported to a 19th century working farm.

Look hard enough through the towering black walnut trees and you can catch a glimpse of Highway 84 bordering the farm but once inside Ardenwood, time not only stands still it reverses.

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