Serving the Loup Valley for 140 Years

“Summer At The Fort” Event 

Draws Statewide Visitors

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Philip Patton of Stromsburg, NE gave a blacksmith demonstration at Fort Hartsuff last weekend during the “Summer at the Fort” event.

By Kate Wolf

   The “Summer at the Fort” event was held this past weekend at Fort Hartsuff, one of the area’s best known tourist attractions.  Visitors came from as far away as Omaha and beyond to experience a step back in time, interacting with re-enactors dressed in period costumes, soldiers on patrol, a hospital surgeon, post cook, soldier’s families and others demonstrating what fort life was like on the plains.  Being present during one of these events is almost magical….you hear the crunch of a soldier’s boots on patrol, the brisk snap of the American flag in the fresh Nebraska breeze, the whisper of a woman’s long dress as it brushes along the ground and the repeated clang of a heavy hammer from the post blacksmith shop.  It was this demonstration that proved very impressive.

   Blacksmithing began around 4,500 B.C. with crude techniques using copper.  By 1,500 B.C. the forging of iron first began.  All they had were simple tools and fire, but it was enough to create weapons such as spearheads and arrow points.  After that, life would never be the same again.  Five hundred years later forging techniques and the metals industry had spread throughout the old world and would one day become a critical factor in fort life on the plains, as well as in the manifest destiny of the American West.

   Philip Patton, his wife, Kelsey, and young son, Hans, of Stromsburg, NE were among the re-enactors participating in the “Summer at the Fort” event.  In addition to being passionate about living history, Philip demonstrated his blacksmithing skills during the event, surrounded by the tools of his trade.

   “I got interested in this history and re-enactment events and I thought it would be a fun thing to do,” Patton explained.  “It’s more than just military.  There were a lot of daily life aspects too.”

   He has been blacksmithing for the past nine years and has also given demonstrations at Stuhr Museum and Rock Creek Station, both in Nebraska.  He has also learned from various highly skilled mentors and has developed many on-line connections in this craft from around the world.  Instead of being a dying art, interest in learning the basic skills of blacksmithing is being revitalized.

   “There’s a lot of interest around it now,” Patton commented.  “It’s coming back.  But it’s more on the artisan or tool side of things now.  Things are done today using modern day applications.  Most people these days aren’t going to a blacksmith.”  Knowledge of metals is important too, depending on which implements you intend to use.  “Just like in the old days, you get a fire going, and add coal or coke pieces to get it hot,” he explained.  Experience tells him when the fire is hot enough.

   “There’s coal that’s used for power and it’s harder.  It doesn’t light as easily.  Bituminous coal is softer and that’s what’s used in forging. You need to have some idea of what you’re working with….high carbon vs. low carbon steel,” he continued, as he constantly worked the overhead bellows to keep the fire hot.  On this occasion he created a spatula for cooking at the request of the post cook.

   At a fort on the Nebraska plains, you’d think wheel rims would be in big demand and, indeed, they often were.  It was a much bigger, more involved task to perform, however.

   “On wheel rims, it would take a couple of guys working on that,” Patton explained.  You’d have to have the right kind of tools.  It’s a very unique process.”  Besides the knowledge and finesse involved in blacksmith work, Patton enjoys the utility of possessing these skills.  “I like making something that can be used,” he remarked.  “Taking something that’s just a piece of scrap and bringing it to some sort of value.”

   Is it dangerous work?  Of course it is….any time you’re working with fire, super- heated metal, and heavy-headed hammers and mallets you’re in a danger zone. And Patton has the scars to prove it.  Most blacksmith shops were not overly spacious in pioneer days, there wasn’t much room to move around and tools needed to always be kept in their specific places because sometimes the blacksmith had to work fast, hence the saying: “Strike while the iron is hot.”

   Read the complete story in the Aug. 3 edition of The Ord Quiz.