Forged in fire
Pioneers journeyed west on the Oregon Trail to build new homes, and once they arrived they visited a blacksmith for a key element in achieving this goal.
"You'd see a blacksmith for nails," said Michael Schmoker, a volunteer blacksmith at Philip Foster Farm National Historic Site.
Schmoker, a retired construction carpenter who has been a member of the farm's team since March, has worked as a blacksmith for 20 years. During the spring and summer, he volunteers at the farm three days each week, and after Labor Day, he's typically there once a week.
Schmoker has been interested in blacksmithing since he was a child.
"I was interested in Westerns as a kid. I didn't figure there was any use for a gunslinger, but I was interested in being a blacksmith," he said. "It struck a chord with me."
Schmoker previously had his own blacksmith shop and has built several forges, which are hearths used for heating metals.
In 1843, Philip Foster his wife Mary Charlotte and their children arrived in Eagle Creek from Maine and established a farm on Barlow Road where many travelers stayed upon arriving in Oregon. Among other elements, the farm featured a blacksmith shop, where tools, horseshoes, nails and other items were created.
Blacksmiths work by heating pieces of metal until they are soft enough to be shaped into items ranging from light fixtures and decorative handles to tools used indoors and outdoors. Once the metal is removed from the forge, it is shaped with hammers and anvils. The process is often repeated several times to achieve the desired effect, and the time it takes to create something depends on the quality of the fire and material.
At Philip Foster Farm, Schmoker works with a coke forge, which burns purified coal. The fire's temperature, which is normally around 1,600 degrees, is controlled by manually adding or reducing air by pumping a blower.
As might be expected, modern gas forges are considerably easier to work with than historical ones.
"With a gas forge, you have a constant steady heat. You can control the fire temperature with how much gas you let in," he said. "Here, there are varying temperatures."
While at the Philip Foster Farm forge, Schmoker typically makes nails and hooks, the latter of which were used by pioneers to hang items from walls and adjust the position of a cooking pot on a fire. His work is often sold at the farm's store.
Along with working at the forge, Schmoker also shares his craft with youths interested in blacksmithing and takes them on as his apprentices.
"It's a very rewarding experience. It's a great group of kids," he said. "If I can start them off, who knows, they might become the next Picasso in blacksmithing."
Schmoker appreciates working with his fellow volunteers and staff at Philip Foster Farm.
"It's a fun place. I've met a lot of good-hearted people," he said. "They're fantastic people, and they all have a willingness to learn about history."
Schmoker also enjoys sharing history with the farm's visitors.
"If I can teach someone about blacksmithing and history, they may carry that in a lot of ways," he said.
He added that blacksmithing is a lifelong passion.
"Once it's in your blood, it's in your blood," he said. "I don't know anyone who started doing this who's not still doing it."
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