Blacksmiths ring in fall with
hammerfalls in Fitchburg
FITCHBURG -- With a wry smile and a few words, the judge for Forge-In competition at the 11th annual Blacksmith Art & Music Festival prepared the 30 blacksmiths vying for nearly $5,000 in prize money for the four-hour task ahead.
"I'm hoping you have strong arms," said Leigh Morrell of Colrain's Morrell Metalsmiths.
He knew what was ahead for the blacksmiths on a perfect Indian summer Saturday in downtown Fitchburg.
When the bell rang to start the first of three, hour-long contests, there was a minute of relative quiet as the blacksmiths thrust rods and bars of mild steel into forges stoked with coal, charcoal and propane gas until they were heated to a luminous orange.
And then the arm work started.
The "smithies" raised the five-pound sledges above their shoulders and slammed them down onto their anvils in the first of thousands of strikes to shape the metal into the various items that would be judged by Morrell.
For nearly the entire hour, the high-pitched pinging of the heavy hammers striking the heat-softened steel resonated through Fitchburg's Riverfront Park.
The smithies were competing in three divisions and each division was tasked with creating three different items.
Novices -- those with less than one-year's experience -- had to build two drive-hooks with a twist, and then later a plant hanger, and a matching pair of door or drawer pulls.
Division II smithies -- those with more than a year of experience -- pounded out candle snuffers, candle holders, and cooking forks.
The professionals in Division III created herb or well hooks, then as many quarter-inch round hooks as time allowed, and then fire pokers.
For the professionals, like Joshua Swalec of Worcester's Eternity Ironworks, the competition was a chance to earn some of the nearly $5,000 in prize money, have some fun and add to his skill set.
"It's a fun competition and I like the chance to win some extra money. I also like the engineering involved. And I just love blacksmithing," said Swalec.
Fellow professional Ted Hinman of Greenfield, who has competed in the Forge-In for the last seven years, said the competition isn't the main reason for his participation.
He enjoys exposing the public to the ancient art and teaching the craft, going so far as wearing the traditional blacksmith garb of a leather apron and knee-high boots.
While he builds ornamental pieces, tools and specialized hinges and latches, he also teaches blacksmithing technique to students using anodized aluminum, which can be shaped without a forge's heat.
Many of those competing on Saturday were students from two regional schools: Old Colony High School in Rochester and Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlboro.
Neal Mansfield, the lead instructor in metal fabrication at Assabet Valley, said his students enjoy the chance to learn blacksmithing as a way to build on the metals knowledge needed to be a professional metal fabricator.
"It's about the fun. It's a good hook for getting students interested in metal," said Mansfield.
The exposure to the ancient art for students and the general public is especially gratifying for the annual festival's co-founder Achla Madan.
"It's great to see the students competing and having fun," said Madan.
Doing much of the heavy lifting for the event were the JROTC cadets from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School and music was provided by the Chicken Ghost House Tribe.
Follow Cliff Clark on Twitter @cliffcclark.