Wake Forest’s Downtown Blacksmith Shop, 1954

It’s surprising to think the Town of Wake Forest still had a blacksmith shop until about 1960. It was where Lumpy’s Ice Cream is today; just an unpainted wooden building where farmers brought their horses and mules. Children loved going in to watch Aaron Mitchell at his forge. Mitchell’s shop appeared in this 1954 magazine profile, originally written by Wake Forest College student Robert B. Burns and published in The Student.

Wake Forest, NC (May 1954) — On one side of the street there is a new automobile showroom. Shiny new cars can be seen through the massive glass windows. In back there is a modern garage.

Almost across Wait Avenue one looks at a world of a half century ago, a world of horses and mules, and of one of the few surviving, old-time blacksmith shops left in North Carolina. It’s only one block from the railroad underpass, along a slight embankment off to the right.

Weeds and high grass border the narrow path that leads from the sidewalk to a shed. This building is adorned with honeysuckle vines on one side and covered, in most places, with a rusty tin roof. On both sides, walls of wide planking allow slightly more than an inch of space between each board; hence, there is an adequate source of illumination on a clear day and air-conditioning costs nothing. Equipment and scraps of iron lay heaped on the dirt floor.

The blacksmith shop was established when the art of forging metal flourished, and it has lasted through the era of the jet plane and hydrogen bomb. The smithy responsible for its existence is 69-year-old Aaron Mitchell, who opened his business in 1910. There were three blacksmith shops in Wake Forest back then, and work was plentiful. Mitchell sometimes made eight to ten dollars a day.

(Adjusted for inflation that’s approximately $250 in 2017 dollars. Working six days a week, with a two week vacation, Mitchell’s annual income would be the equivalent of $75,000.)

Those were the pre-automobile days. Among his equipment, Mitchell had a gas-powered ripsaw and band saw, and a hand-driven drill.

“I used to fix furniture, chairs, and about anything that came that I could do. Don’t do too much of that now,” Mitchell said. Instead he works on wagon wheels, buggy wheels, and plows–but his main occupation is still shoeing horses.

Around seven every morning, Mitchell arrives at work and dons an old jacket stiff with grease. He keeps approximately six sets of shoes on hand. They hang across a horizontal rod suspended on the legs of the furnace. Old shoes with crooked nails dangle from the narrow strip attached to the two-by-fours that brace the walls. When he runs out, new horseshoes aren’t shipped from Kentucky or Texas; they’re purchased at the downtown hardware store in Wake Forest.

When an order comes in, the shoes are placed in the embers with tongs and half-burned pieces of coal are pushed over the open end of the shoes. A small wheel, similar to a waterwheel, is encased in copper and geared down like an ice cream freezer with two sprockets; the hub of the larger holds a crank with an iron knob on one end–for balance–and handle on the other.

Copper tubing from the fan-wheel encasement stretches over the floor to the bottom of the furnace. This kind of blower is old and new. It replaced the portable, accordion-type blower that is occasionally used by country stores for dusting.

Mitchell’s left shoulder dips down with each turn of the crank while, with his right hand, he stirs the coal with a poker. Sparks fly off in great quantities, and he slacks off on the blower until the new coal catches up.

After about five minutes, the ends of the horseshoes are white-hot. Mitchell takes the tongs and extracts a shoe from the fire. Very quickly, he picks up a mallet and moves the shoe into the notched end of a heavy anvil mounted on an old oak stump. By the time the ends of the  shoe have been beaten into an “L” shape, the color has changed from white to red-hot. But the rapid pace of hammering hasn’t slowed. The shoe’s ends are beaten down so there are no rough edges.

The final process is opening the nail holes shrunk by the intense heat and pounding. Mitchell places the shoe over a small gap in the anvil and taps the awl squarely on the head. With the dexterity of a watchmaker, he strikes two beats with the mallet and moves to another hole. When the new shoe is finished, he hangs it over a board near the door.

There was a time when Mitchell fired the furnace every morning and left a log on the fire to keep it going. Nowadays he only starts it up when he knows about a job in advance. He does about three a day, shoeing horses. Most people just want the horse’s front feet shod, since they are used in the field for plowing. When horses were the main source of transportation, and legal to be on city streets, business was extremely good. The horses all required four shoes each in those days.

Mitchell knows the hoof size of almost all the work animals in the area. And if a man buys a new horse and wants him shod, Mitchell can go out and merely look at the animal’s foot, come back, and fix the shoe to fit. Then he returns to the farm with his small wooden tool chest, raises the horse’s foot, removes the old shoe with two quick yanks, levels the bottom of the hoof with his draw knife, and nails the new shoe into place. Except for an occasional finger prick, Mitchell has gone unscathed over his entire 43-year career.

At 5:30 pm the door to the shop is closed and locked, and Aaron Mitchell walks home, through the edge of downtown, past a service station and a frame house with a towering television antenna.

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