Contemplating the antique trip hammers in master blacksmith Jack Parks’ Piedmont shop — Fire Steel Forge — you might catch a glimpse at the origins of the class divide raging in the nation. These steel monsters were built to pack a wallop. But the the Mayer Brothers of Mankato’s New Little Giant model ceded nothing, in the way of form, to function.
This machine wasn’t built for the cigar rooms of Bar Harbor estates. Why did the engineer behind the graceful lines of a New Little Giant consider the aesthetic environments of men with grease-blackened, calloused hands? For blacksmiths… a trade peopled by men who Parks says were generally regarded as, “illiterate and alcoholic, and not a well-respected member of the community.”
“He was probably always hot, and sweaty and dirty.”
Why then, in turn, did the under-appreciated blacksmith labor longer to add an artistic flourish (that some farmers may see as superfluous) to a wagon wheel?
There’s a subtext inside the lines of a New Little Giant. The world it came from was far from ideal, but this machine signifies a tacit acceptance that even a laborer, or a farmer, farrier, blacksmith, rancher, swinger of hammers, deserved not only a solid effort but one as beautifully rendered as utility allows.
Jack Parks grew up in Rapid City and returned to the Black Hills somewhat disillusioned after a tour as as an Army combat engineer in Vietnam. “I was patriotic, but pretty anti-establishment,” he recalls.
He wanted to be more self-sufficient. “I felt like I was heading in the right direction, being a producer not just a consumer.”
“I kind of take pride in being able to do more things. The ability to do that lends itself to being more of a survivalist, or more competent in being able to make things you might need.”
“The blacksmith was the jack of all trades, maybe master of none. He could do a lot of different things, where in later years things got more and more specialized — some of the blacksmiths just shoed horses, some just made wagon hardware. But in the early years they would do it all. They would sharpen the ploughshares, shoe the horses, make wagon parts.”
At the turn of the 20th century, every town of any size had at least one blacksmith, and many farms and ranches had a metal shop. The age of mass production age began to change that. First, the shops began to shutter. Then, WWII scrap metal drives claimed many ranch and farm forges, anvils and other blacksmith tools.
By the time Parks got started, interest, expertise and basic tools were hard to find. Fortunately, he discovered a Black Hills blacksmith named Harvey Brunner, who was known for his ability to fix farm implements thought of as beyond repair. “His big thing was to teach,” Parks recalls. “And he was a saint in that regard. He would put up with us raw beginners in his shop weekend after weekend.”
Gradually Parks became a repository for that knowledge — a bridge between the Harvey Brunners and the young blacksmiths that in the last couple decades have sparked a resurgence in the iron arts — building up his Piedmont shop, with tools like a lathe passed down from his grandfather (who was a machinist at the old ordnance depot in Igloo, South Dakota), self-restored drill presses and trip hammers.
Parks enjoys the artistry of metal work, but tends to favor functionality. He’s a connoisseur of tools, with an amazing hammer collection. His shop walls are marked with the insignia of the many cattle brands he’s made for local ranchers. He’s old school. Despite the occasional problems involved with using scrap, he still prefers to salvage rather than use new stock. You won’t find much evidence of Fire Steel Forge on Twitter either. His business model depends on old-fashioned word of mouth. And in the Black Hills, he’s become known as that rare artisan who can create both fine art and cattle brands.
“In the forty years I’ve been doing this, I never get tired of it, cause there’s always something more to learn. The versatility of it allows me to branch into other things.”
That experience enables him to approach hot metal intuitively. “That metal comes up to temperature in the fire, then you take it out, it immediately starts cooling down. So as you go to the anvil, you’ve got to make a snap decision. You make judgements just by eye, and they have to be quick.”
Simple things like how best to hold a hammer when striking a piece of metal (to maximize the energy transferred into metal while minimizing the energy expended) come with time.
“[Harvey Brunner] wanted to make sure that the art of blacksmithing didn’t die out. And I’ve tried to carry that on,” says Parks. He has passed on his knowledge of blacksmithing as a master teacher with the South Dakota Arts Council, through many apprenticeships and at public demonstrations.
A new wave of young blacksmiths have helped reinforce the feeling that Parks was headed in the right direction. Younger smiths face a different set of challenges than he did. Newer, more expensive equipment is now easier to find. The old machines and tools are scarcer now — antique trip hammers that can be picked up for cheap and restored if you have the know-how are not as easy to come by. Startup costs are higher. But they can tap into a resurgent interest in handcrafted goods as well as community of knowledge, preserved by people like Jack Parks.
Parks often makes tools that emphasize their material origins. Recently he forged a pair of knives from steel cable, striae still visible as braids mutate into blade. In form and purpose, this piece of metal had evolved to live another day.