by Scott Wadsworth
This essay was something that was published in 2005 in “The Hot Iron News”...quarterly newsletter for The Northwest Blacksmith Association. I had just been introduced to “The Craft” following a fairytale experience of being gifted with a museum collection of blacksmith gear by a fine old man, Bill Vian, a few months earlier. Bill passed away in 2010. I owe him a lot...far more than just the value of the tools…
Finally I steal time to scribble the story of my recent introduction to, and obsession with blacksmithing. My intention is first; to acknowledge and accurately record the boon and blessing that acquiring Bill Vian’s trove of smithing gear has been to one whose middle age was beginning to get pretty stale. Second; to provoke incredulity, anvil envy, and hope for all who think the age of miraculous blacksmith tool discoveries is past.
Welding, and steel fabrication have been part of my life since I was in Ag class in High School. During thirty five years in construction, saw milling, logging and Dixieland jazz, my welding certifications have been often useful and occasionally vital. As a young carpenter in Las Vegas, it became apparent that the welders on the jobs enjoyed a prestige, and received a subtle deference from the superintendents that I wasn’t getting much of. More to the point, they made more money. So I passed a couple of tests, bought a funny spotted hat, a rod holder, some leathers and voila!! I was a welder!
Now, even then I realized that there was much, much, more to working with steel than I, or anybody I worked with knew so I was always on the lookout for trade knowledge. Since I’ve always been seduced by anachronisms, I never missed an opportunity to watch anyone teaching, demonstrating or b.s.ing about skills vital to frontier life. Particularly the critical, mysterious, testosterone dependent skills of the frontier Blacksmith.
I left the big city construction grind in 1994, and establishing myself as a small contractor where I grew up, in Douglas County Oregon. In 1999 I became acquainted with Bill Vian. In his late 70’s at the time, he is an interesting, intelligent, articulate man. He had been a partner in a bridge building company from 1945 until 1969. During that period of time he and his partners had built nearly half of the bridges that were constructed in the State of Oregon. Retiring in the early seventies, he was elected County Commissioner, and in his spare time, superintended construction projects for Kenneth Ford, owner of Roseburg Lumber Company, the largest independently owned lumber company in the world.
In my business I occasionally contract to build very complex, non-typical concrete structures. At some point I started picking Bill up and taking him out to the finished projects. His background permitted him to instantly understand the jobs, and he was a great source of encouragement and advice. We became friends, and I will never forget the first time I went into his shop. It was huge. High, wide, and shipshape with collections of new and old construction paraphernalia stored and displayed everywhere. After about five seconds, all I could see was the anvil. I never imagined that an anvil like that existed. I know now that it is a 448 lb. Hay Budden, but at the time I only knew that it was the mother of all shop tools. “Bill!!” I squeaked… “Where did you get that anvil!!” “Well hell” he scoffed, “that’s nothing… come look at this“…. And he led me outside to a dog run. Covered. Five feet wide and sixteen feet long. He thumbed the latch and swung open the door. There was a crouching tangle of top tools, bottom tools, floor cones, tongs tongs and more tongs, racks, bending forks, bicks, smelting pots, case hardening boxes, punches, headers, forging dies, blowers, hardies, fullers, travelers, calipers, kiss plates, axe eye mandrels, and vices. Starting about 12 inches deep, it mounded up to about four feet deep, and then back down to 12 inches over the entire floor of the run. Stunned silence…. “Bill…. Where in the heck did you find this stuff”???
Turns out that Kenneth Ford bought the International Lumber Company in Weed California in the early 80’s and as was his habit, immediately went to work improving the facility in a big way. He brought Bill down from Roseburg to oversee the major portions of the new construction, including the remodeling of the on site railroad roundhouse into a machine shop. Only thing was, the roundhouse still had the blacksmith shop in it, essentially intact! So Bill, as a collector of tools and intending to set up a blacksmith shop made a deal with Ford to buy the lot. Took him three trips with his trailer to get it home. He unloaded it in the dog run, put the anvil in his shop, and that was that. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just lived my last day without daydreaming about blacksmithing.
As I drove away from Bill’s place that day I was caught between an overpowering lust for those tools and a gnawing feeling that to even express an interest in that mother lode would sure smell like a cynical exploitation of a friendship. He loved that stuff as much as I did! I had no idea what the tools were called, much less what they were worth. The value was a moot point anyway; cause no way could I shell out any real money for a future hobby. So I let a few months go by as I racked my brain for a win-win proposal that my conscience would allow. Finally I scraped together what courage I could find and made the long, long seven-mile drive out to Bill’s place to make my pitch.
I pulled my work truck into his place. I drove through the freshly pruned apple orchard, in front of the big, immaculate shop, and parked in the driveway of his two story multi-gabled country home. Bill came out and admired the new hoist on my truck, we visited for a while and finally I just blurted out; “ Bill I would sure love to own your blacksmith gear, I’ll tell you what” (the blood rises up my neck and my ears get hot every time I remember this) “ I’ll give you $2,500 in carpenter work for all that stuff, after you’re dead!” “ You keep it till you are through with it, and after you are gone, I’ll load it up, and any time Judy (his wife) needs carpenter work, she can call me.” He thought about that for a few minutes. I figured it was a good sign that he hadn’t thrown me off the porch. He allowed as how there wasn’t anybody he would rather see have it, and changed the subject.
For the next year or so, every time I saw Bill, I completely avoided the subject of the tools. More cowardice than good sense. One day in August of 2004 my phone rang and it was Bill. He sounded lousy. “ Scott, you’d better come out here”, so I told him I’d be out the next day. When I got out there he looked pretty rough. Turned out that he had had a pacemaker installed. The problem came a week or so later when the fruit in the orchard got ripe and the neighbors wouldn’t even come over to pick what he offered to give ’em While he was picking the “damn plums” he had a little bad luck, and fell out of the tree. Mortality was looming. “Well” he said,” I guess we better figure out what to do with those tools.” As I remember we decided that probably we’d wait till he was in a little better shape. Tough as he is, Bill had a pretty rough siege that autumn between the pacemaker, the fall, the Parkinson’s and a bout of pneumonia. It wasn’t until the end of October 2004 just before the NWBA Conference at Flashing Forge that he was well enough to oversee the inventory of the tools.
When the day came, I loaded up a bunch of plywood to spread out on the lawn, and highballed out to the Vian’s. While Bill perched on a five gallon bucket, I started packing tools out of the dog run, and sorting them by type and size on the plywood scattered all over the lawn and driveway. It was a treasure hunt. I think it took about six hours to sort it and spread it out on a dozen sheets. What a blast that day was. Bill knew more about it than I did, but really the best we could do was to guess at what most of the tools were for. The final count was a little over 400 pieces. Sixty some top tools, eighty something bottom tools, eighty sets of tongs, the largest over five feet long. You get the idea. When the hoard was out where we could see it, I began to get a glimmer of just how far out of line my first offer really was. So, with a sense of resignation, knowing there was no way that I could afford this museum collection, I said, “ So Bill, what do you want to do?” What he said next still floors me. “Scott”, he said, “ you pick out the set that you want... tell me what you’ll give me for it... and I’ll give you the rest”. So, we did some trading. I brought him a slightly pathetic 150 lb. anvil for his shop, did some work, a trinket or two, some odds and ends, as I remember a pistol was part of the deal but the bottom line is this; Bill Vian gave me those tools, and it is by far the greatest material gift I have ever received.
Now it is a year and a half later. With Cy Swan’s coaching and help, (what a renaissance man that guy is) I’ve built a forge, set up a shop, been to three conferences, scored on a Chambersburg power hammer, taken an art class, met some of the most interesting and well adjusted people (?), and am beginning to explore a craft of sufficient breadth and depth to satisfy any anachronism junkie.
And Bill is almost as happy about it all as I am...