The Dothan Eagle
DOTHAN, Ala. — The steel rod glowed bright orange in the coals, stoked by air from the 19th century-era bellows.
Steve Lowery picked up the rod with the scorching end and placed it on an anvil, then whacked it with a hammer until it started to flatten.
Again and again. Then, back in the fire.
About 25 people gathered under the roof of Bob Portman’s barn in Coffee County on a recent Saturday morning to watch Lowery make a tool or utensil just like it would have been made in the Civil War era.
By the time Lowery had finished heating, hammering, shaping and cooling he had made an instrument that held a metal coffee pot over a fire. When manipulated, it would pour coffee from the pot into the cup without your hands having to touch any hot metal.
One of the spectators on hand coined a technical term for the demonstration.
“Neat as all get out.”
Lowery’s Civil War-era blacksmithing demonstration was the highlight of a recent Wiregrass Forge meeting, a monthly gathering of blacksmithing enthusiasts. The group boasts the most active club, or “forge,” in the state of Alabama.
The monthly meetings are held at various members’ forges and often center on a demonstration in a particular discipline of blacksmithing.
Forge Master Cliff Ohlenburger said there is something personally fulfilling about being able to take a piece of scrap iron and, through heat and the correct manipulation, turn it into something practical, ornate, or both.
But Ohlenburger said he loves the art for more than that.
“You can start hammering a piece of hot steel, and it won’t take you long until you forget everything else,” said Ohlenburger, who has been active in the Wiregrass Forge for at least 10 years. “And not just that, but how wonderful is it for you to make gifts for someone that’s handmade instead of just going out and buying something?”
The meeting included a “show and tell” table full of various creations by Wiregrass Forge members. They ranged from the practical: bowls, tongs, knives, meat forks and turners - to the ornate: fountains, fish, crests and more.
Some of the 45 active Wiregrass Forge members, like Ohlenburger, are retired Army aviators. However, Ohlenburger said members come from all backgrounds and range from the curious to the obsessed.
Portman said he has been interested in blacksmithing since he can remember, but became active after inheriting his grandfather’s anvil more than 25 years ago. He said he remembers an early meeting of the Wiregrass Forge in the 1980s in which only two people were in attendance. Today, the forge continues to grow with 45 active members.
A renewed do-it-yourself interest appears to have created a resurgence in blacksmithing. When automated machines began to phase out the blacksmith as a necessary part of every community, the profession began to die away. Now, an increasing number of people are dedicated to keeping the art alive. A national organization known as the Artists Blacksmiths’ Association of North America (ABANA) began in 1973 with 27 members. It has more than 4,000 today.