“The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1840, the first poem of any substance I remember from Parrish Elementary School, struck me as a fairly accurate physical description of my father. He did not have a smithy, but he did often work under large oaks to avoid some of Florida’s brutal sun. He also did not go to church on Sunday nor did I ever see him shed a tear. However, the visual and auditory images Longfellow employed brought my father to mind immediately, and I could see him at his anvil as my 4th grade teacher read the piece aloud.
…The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands….
…His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,…
…You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
with measured beat and slow…
I became familiar with farrier tools when my brother, Smokey, and I accompanied our father on horseshoeing jobs across Manatee, Hardee, De Soto, and Sarasota counties. We were expected to grab the correct tool when my father demanded one from the toolbox. My father’s contemporaries called him a blacksmith, but, in truth, I learned later that he was a farrier, one who shoes horses, mules, donkeys and occasionally oxen and is not necessarily skilled in other iron work done by the blacksmith. The farrier comes from the Latin word ferrarius, which means of iron or blacksmith, so the confusion between the two is natural.
Thirty years later I flashed back to those blacksmith /farrier moments when I watched the television show, Our House. From an online article in Equus Magazine, I learned “Wilford Brimley, America’s most famous farrier,…(from that 1986 television series) who shoed horses as crotchety old Gus Witherspoon…convinced the (show) writers to have Gus, the grandfather, go back to shoeing horses for some extra cash. As Wil likes to tell the story, he even got NBC to build him a shoeing rig. (“And a pretty nice one at that,” he recalls.) Brimley…referred again and again to how hard farriers work — and live. “My father wanted me to do something to earn an honest living, so I said I wanted to make that honest living shoeing horses,” he began his final story. “My father looked at me and said, ‘That’s a little bit too honest, son’.” As I watched those episodes, I wished my father had embodied some of Gus Witherspoon’s jovial qualities.
From the 17th chapter, “Blacksmithing,” in Growing Up Floridian:
The flash of the year and a half old 1958 Ford Ranchero sitting in the driveway just beyond the railroad-tie cattleguard, which offered vehicles a way to enter the yard but kept cattle and horses out, caught my eye as my brother and I cleared the tree line. The yard, surrounded by taut barbed wire to keep the ranch’s roaming cattle and horses at bay, had ample room for several vehicles and a horse trailer. After hearing bits of our parents’ conversation over the previous weeks about the problems created by the frequent breakdowns of my father’s 1950 Chevy pickup, I anticipated the newer truck. I did not expect a truck that
looked like a sleek car. The two-tone black and white body trimmed with a chrome sidespear that split the two colors gleamed as the black roof sat above the big windshield like a trim formal hat. My brother said our father must have been sold by the advertising descriptions of a truck with “double-duty beauty” and “the only truck with true passenger-car comfort and driving ease,” and the truck was comfortable and fashionable.
As I adjusted my schoolbooks to my other arm, I could see the Ranchero’s bed already gave home to a custom-made multi-sectioned box to house my father’s farrier tools. A stainless steel lid with a substantial lock protected the tools that facilitated his evening and weekend avocation, a self-taught set of skills that supplemented his work as a ranch hand on the Quarter Circle A Ranch. My brother pointed to the 90 pound anvil, secured by a strap attached to a bolt in the sidewall behind the left wheel well, that clearly weighed down the driver’s side of the truck a bit, but that weight would soon be balanced on the opposite side by stacks of horseshoes in a variety of sizes that fit into another custom rack fastened to the sidewall behind the right wheel well. A pair of bolts for anchoring the portable coal forge protruded noticeably from the bed of the truck. Clearly, our father had measured and designed storage space for his entire blacksmithing operation.