Barney's Blacksmith Shop
Nick Earley

The door of the shop was always open and from it wafted the conglomerate
odor of burning hooves, manure, and quenched iron. The more fastidious
hurried past, noses wrinkled. Small boys tarried in the doorway, while
oldsters drifted inside to sit on nail kegs and occasionally borrow a chew of
cigar clippings. There was the orange spurt of the forge, then a brief spray of
sparks when the steady clang-clang-clang of the hammer began. The
blacksmith had muscles with a capital M and a chew of tobacco as big as a
golf ball. ("Neighborhood Hero")

Many years ago, there were blacksmith shops, such as the scene describes above, scattered all over Saginaw. Today, however, the only remaining blacksmith shop still operating is Barney's Blacksmith Shop, originally owned by my great-grandfather, Bernhardt (Barney) A. Neumeyer. The shop is located at 965 Shattuck Road in Carrollton, Michigan. It was named Barney's Blacksmith shop because his nickname was Barney.

Barney Neumeyer was born May 28, 1889 in Bay County. He resided there on his family farm until 1910, when he came to Saginaw. He married Marie Goetz in 1913 in Bay City. From 1910-1924 he worked for John Breiter and Fred Eckert Blacksmiths Shops ("Obituary of Neumeyer").

In January 1925, he opened his own shop. He purchased the original Bethlehem School, founded in 1865 and where church services were also held beginning in 1889, and converted the school into Barney's Blacksmith Shop, located at the corner of Hermansau and Shattuck Roads ("Bethlehem" 26). As the enrollment at Bethlehem Lutheran School grew to 72 students, a new and larger school was built at 604 Oak Street. This led to Barney purchasing the school (Bethlehem 26) He had the school moved on the property, so he could have his home built right next to the shop. A few years after he was established, he had an addition added to one side of the shop. Barney owned and operated the shop for twenty-four years, from 1925-1949 ("Obituary of Neumeyer").

By 1946, there were only three blacksmith shops remaining in Saginaw. Besides Barney's, there was Leonard O. Loesel, of 613 South Harrison and Herman F. Schroeder, of 320 Johnson ("Neighborhood Hero"). The areas largest and best equipped was Barney's.

The trade of Blacksmithing comes from two words, "black" and "smite." Blacksmiths "smite" or pounded iron. In colonial times, blacksmiths forged, or heated and hammered iron into many shapes, from cutting utensils to farming and kitchen tools. The village smithy, or blacksmith shop, was often located at the corner of two main roads so the people could find it easily (Kalman 7). It was a very busy place. It was not unusual to see several people waiting at the shop while the blacksmith worked their tools or farming equipment. No one minded waiting, however. It serve as a social gathering. As the blacksmith forged objects, his customers talked about the weather, politics, and town events.

There were no schools or books to teach someone to be a blacksmith many years ago. The trade or skills were passed from one generation to the next, or from master to apprentice.

Although the arrangement inside blacksmith shops varied, the same basic tools and equipment were found in all shops. The forge was a fireplace made of bricks. This contained the fire used to heat the iron. Large bellows were used to heat the fire in the forge. The anvil was the blacksmith's work surface. It was a heavy iron block that the blacksmith used to hammer the hot iron into various objects. Iron can only be shaped when it is very hot, and it cools rapidly when it is out of the fire. The anvil sat very close to the forge so that the blacksmith could pull the iron from the fire and start working it right away (Fisher 21-30). Other commonly used tools were vises to hold the hot iron in place, tongs, and numerous types of hammers.

The job of blacksmiths evolved and changed over many years, as the needs and demands of the people changed. Although many blacksmiths shooed horses, Barney Neumeyer never shod a horse. Unlike colonial times, when blacksmiths kept horses shod and wagons and buggies in working condition, Barney's work still had to do with transportation. His primary work consisted of work on trucks, automobiles, and motorized farm equipment ("Neighborhood Hero").

During the wartime and postwar, metals and material shortages created a variety of special jobs for Barney, which otherwise would have taken months from normal supply distributors. Barney's daughter, Margaret, my grandmother, stated, "My father made good money making parts for the Saginaw Steering Gear plant" (Mercer). He even repaired truck frames and stiffened automobile fenders, along with repairing all types of farm equipment. He also did some special jobs for automobile dealers and industrial plants ("Neighborhood Hero").

For many years, Barney operated his shop by himself. In his later years, he hired an apprentice named Jacob. In 1949, at the age of 60, Barney Neumeyer sold his blacksmith shop to his neighbor, Ernie Kunitzer. However, he continued to work part-time for the shop, as his expertise and experience were called upon time and time again. His daughter remembers what it was like to live in a home located next to her father's blacksmith shop. "Just when my family would sit down to eat a meal, someone would come to the shop and my father would have to leave. By the time he came back in, his food was always cold. And there were no microwaves to heat it back up in those days" (Mercer). She also remembered the long hours her father worked. "There were no set hours for the shop. My dad just waited on his customers whenever they came. Sometimes, he was busy from sunrise to sunset" (Mercer).

At the end of his career, Barney realized that blacksmithing was a dying trade. He stated, "The trouble is that we fellows are getting older and the young fellows of today don't seem to want to learn the trade. They'd rather go into the big shops and earn the big money than serve an apprenticeship over an anvil" ("Neighborhood Hero").

One of the main factors that contributed to the decline in the blacksmith profession was the beginning of factories. Also, the kinds of articles that were once in demand during the simpler life of the nineteenth century were nearly obsolete (Fisher 21-30). In the latter half of the twentieth century, mass-production and replacement of broken items was preferred over repair. It became cheaper to throw away a broken chain than to have a blacksmith make the repair links (Allen).

Barney's Blacksmith shop still operates, now owned by Ronald D. Blohm. His work consists mainly of trailer hitches and wiring, electric and acetylene welding, forging and general repair (Blohm).

There are a few modem blacksmiths, estimated in numbers between five and ten thousand, but it is a leisure activity, or hobby, with modem tools. It is not a necessity or profession (Allen). We live in a different age and the blacksmith doesn't fit into the twenty-first century. "After all, who buys a magnetic compass needle when a GPS satellite can pinpoint one's location at the touch of a button (Allen).

Ben Franklin, in his Poor Richard's Almanac, wrote, "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost" (Allen). In "The Village Blacksmith," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow praises the blacksmith:

Under a spreading chestnut tree,
The village smithy stands,
The smith, a mighty man he is,
With large and sinewy hands,
And the muscles of his brawny arms,
Are strong as iron bands,
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns what'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
He owes not any man.

Bernhardt "Barney" Neumeyer died on August 30, 1966, at the age of 77, from prostate cancer. Various family members have some photographs and memorabilia from the shop, which we display and treasure, realizing that Barney held a vital part of Saginaw history. When we drive by his shop, we glance up at his name and feel glad that the shop was never renamed, as his original marquis remains on the storefront. It reminds us of our heritage and of how much the world has changed in a short time. Although no longer an important part of our current society, the blacksmith played an integral role in our history.

Works Cited

  • Allen, David. "A Little Bit of Blacksmithing History" 18 Feb. 2004 Appalachian Blacksmiths Association <http://www.appletree.net/aba/history.htm> 7 Apr. 2005.
  • "Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church." Fifty years of the Spirit's Blessing. Saginaw, MI: 1965.
  • Blohm, Ronald. Personal Interview. 5 Apr. 2005.
  • Fisher, Everett. The Blacksmiths. New York: Benchmark Books, 1976.
  • Kalman, Bobbie. The Blacksmith. New York: Crabtree Publishing, 2002.
  • Mercer, Margaret. Personal Interview. 30 Mar. 2005.
  • "Obituary of Neumeyer, Bernhardt A." The Saginaw News 30 Aug. 1966 n. p.
  • "Once a Neighborhood Hero, Blacksmith Gradually Fading Into Oblivion Here." The Saginaw News 1946 n.p.

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