Dick Hunt's Blog

May 23, 2011

Post # 100 Blacksmithing

Filed under: Current — Dick Hunt's Blog @ 8:15 pm

by Dick Hunt, May 23rd, 2011.

Blacksmithing, working with hot iron is a basic part of the activities of Agriculture, and certainly of Ranching. We needed to be self reliant in order to function effectively from day to day. To fashion tools and hardware from iron and other metals, we used what is called a forge, which is a firebed with a grate in the middle and under the grate a metal pipe to enable air to be pumped up under the fire of hard blacksmith coal.  The air is produced by a hand or motor operated fan and makes it possible to get maximum heat from the fire.  Iron is placed in the coals and brought to the desired heat to enable it to be shaped according to the function of the piece being produced.  When welding, the two pieces of iron to be joined are brought up to white heat to enable them to be moulded together by placing the two pieces together on the anvil and hammering them briskly to fuse them together. It is necessary for the Smith to carefully bring the metals to the desired heat without burning or melting the metal.

My eldest brother Wilf, my youngest brother David and I all studied blacksmithing at the Old’s Alberta School of Agriculture. We all honed and used our skills in our work on the Ranches. Bill, my next youngest brother picked up the skils along the road with the demands of the regular work and advice from various associates, including his three brothers. Wilf excelled in the craft and won an award for excellence of his work at the School. He was given a beautiful pair of silver inlaid spurs (used when riding horses), made by the blacksmithing instructor, Mr. McLellan. Our studies at the school were broadly based and included Maths and Sciences, English, Civics,  (now lumped together with various other studies and called Social Studies).  We studied Farm Mechanics, Irrigation, Botany, Soils, Chemistry, Physics, Farm Management, Animal Husbandry, Field Husbandry, Veterinary Science, Dairying, Butchering, Poultry.  We were engaged in Debating.
Wilf went on to be a very talented Mechanic. In 1927, our Father bought our first internal combustion tractor, called J.I. Case Company 18-37. It used a magneto to ignite the charges in the cylinders instead of the spark plugs later used.  It had a weakness  in that when it rained the magneto got wet and ceased to function.   The way to fix it was to remove the magneto, take it to the house, put it in the oven on the coal stove and carefully heat it to dry it again. That spawned the next problem, how to re-install it and time the spark system again. Our hired men tried and failed and the tractor sat idle in the field while the land work languished.  Wilf asked Dad if he could fix it and Dad said he could if he got up early and did it before breakfast.  Wilf was 13 years of age and I was 7.  He knew how to read and apply the directions and drove the tractor into the yard just as we were sitting down to breakfast.  His reputation was made solidly and he never looked back as far as mechanics were concerned.

He was also very good at welding, metal lathe work, inventing new processes and machinery and improving the machinery we used from the various machine companies.  He went on repairing tractors, cars, trucks, lawn mowers, etc. in his double garage until his active years declined at about the age of ninety. He could fix anything. He was also a good carpenter and built a beautiful catamaran boat, not to mention a house and other buildings where he lived with Alyce his wife.

When our Father died in 1957, David took over the operation of the stock farm south of Calgary which Dad bought in 1948 and developed after he learned he was too young to retire. David hoped that one or more of his sons would decide to carry on with the thriving cattle industry but  that did not happen.  Chris became a notable Actor, Danny became a truck driver and worked for a successful Concrete Transit Mix company and Peter became a fine Cabinet maker.  The Cattle operation was phased out.

Candle Stick (Iron-Art) by David Hunt

(click here for a few more examples of David Hunt’s work)

But David went on to develop his hobby of creating Fine Iron-art in the blacksmith shop where he lived with Connie his wife, south of Calgary a few miles.  He produced  a constant stream of beautiful pieces of all descriptions, including furniture, custom work for private individuals and Construction Companies, and myriads of garden furnishings, candle holders and other items  in great profusion. Connie worked along with him in polishing items and finishing many pieces with paints and laquers. They marketed their  work all around Alberta, into the western States and some as far away as Britain and Japan. David was a professional welder with a low voltage wire welder.  He also shaped his work in a gas fired forge, using a rebuilt “trip hammer” for heavy shaping and more delicate hammer and anvil crafting for more delicate pieces. Unfortunately he passed away at age 71. But their son Chris worked with him occasionally the last few years and has continued to do some work of his own devising in the shop where all the equipment is still intact.

I have been away from the Ranch since 1955  as I left to study for the Ministry in the fall of that year.  But I have done some blacksmithing too in the years before I left.  Chiefly I crafted gate hardware and did repairs which involveed the use of the forge.  Wilf was always there to do the welding and mechanics etc.  I do want to relate one incident which left an “indelible” mark on me. Our Father scheduled an auction sale of Registered Cattle  at the Ranch with professional auctioneers  and we hustled to ready the corrals for the event. However, at the last moment it was decided that a section of Corral fence must be removed and a gate installed.  I was asked to rush to the blacksmith shop and craft up a pair of heavy duty hinges and a suitable latch.  I was well into the rush job when I failed to grasp a piece of white hot iron from the forge using the tongs and instead grasped it with my bare left hand.  For seconds the nerves were cauterized and then I dropped the iron.  I went on quickly and finished the job, now wiser.

Bill lived on and managed a Ranch in eastern Alberta for a number of years  which entailed a great deal  of fencing and constant oversight of the cattle. There were 48,000 acres of what is known on the prairies as “the Short Grass Country”. In point of fact, the annual rainfall is so minimal that grass grows very short to the ground and it requires 50 acres of land to pasture each adult animal the year round.  The plus is that the grass is high in protein and great for growing cattle to maturity.  Bill had the misfortune in April of one year to have his horse slip on the ice and in the fall, Bill’s ankle was severely fractured. He managed to strip the saddle from the horse and turn it into the feed stack, before crawling some distance to the house.   He lived alone, had no phone or transportation and his problem was not discovered for a week.  By that time his ankle was black and terribly swollen and painful.   A call to Calgary resulted in a ski equipped plane which came and flew him to the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary.  His house had burned to the ground in the fall and he was living in a makeshift garage with no plumbing or water on tap.  He hadn’t had a shave, haircut or bath for months and was just thawing snow on a camp stove for water.  The staff at the hospital could hardly believe he was human with his head nearly hidden in coal black hair.  But they saved his leg and restored him to health, praise be to God and the medical staff.  When he was ready to return home, he went again by air, the pilot being a friend from school days in Calgary at Mount Royal College. Eustace let him take the controls in the plane and he was almost instantly determined to learn to fly and have his own plane, which is what happened. He learned to fly off Calgary airport and flew his own two place Aeronca Champ back to the Ranch. He later traded it for a four place Aeronca Sedan which enabled him to more adequately look after the Ranch and also perform a useful service in providing free emergency transportation to various people storm bound in winter and also needing quick access to medical care and often child birth.  He flew voluntarily as a fire spotter and gave air transport in fire season. He had no commercial license.  Bill also had occasion to employ his blacksmithing skills in his flying experience. The main occasion for that was entailed when he was flying in winter on skiis and flew to a small village for some supplies landing across the railroad tracks where the snow obliterated all sight of the rails. The little tail ski caught on a rail and tore off the plane.  He was able to fly back to the Ranch and carefully land in the snow.  He then crafted up a new ski in the blacksmith shop from a old plowshare and fitted it to enable him to fly to Calgary and install a new one.

On another  occasion, Bill had flown his plane to visit someone and had landed on a very saturated grass field during a unusual rainy spell. It was a windy day and when he was taxiing downwind to prepare for take off,  a gust caught the tail and tipped the plane up on it’s nose.  Bill hit the switch but not before the metal prop had hit the ground and bent somewhat. A short distance away, a seismograph crew was working and came to his aid. They helped him lower the plane back to level, got their four foot long pipe wrenches and straightened the prop enough so that at reduced throttle Bill was able to fly back to the Ranch and then to Calgary to have the plane checked out and to repair the prop.

On another occasion the plane was tied down with the tail facing north west when  a strong wind came out of the north west and buffeted the vertical rudder so fiercely that most of the welds in the tubular frame were broken.  On that occasion, Bill made emergency repairs with (you guessed it), DUCT TAPE, which enabled him to very gently fly to Calgary for repairs. With the sale of that Ranch and the move with Lee his wife and their family to the Endiang Ranch, there was no need for the plane in that operation and so Bill reluctantly sold the plane.  He was very pleased to learn later that his plane had been used to do the official Air Photography for the 1986 World Fair in Vancouver.


  1. Thank you! I learned so much!

    Comment by Rachel Lloyd — May 24, 2011 @ 6:38 am

    • Thank you for commenting on your help in understanding. Sincerely, Dick Hunt.

      Comment by 57dickhunt — May 24, 2011 @ 10:37 am

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