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Secrets of Metal Making

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

The village blacksmith must have been a pretty popular guy. A blacksmith in colonial times was truly an asset to the settling communities. They extracted metals from ore (rock) by smelting it, or - heating it at high temperatures until all the elements are extracted, leaving only the metal base behind. Smelting was done at a bloomery, where a blast furnace was used to produce pig iron (molten iron), which would later be remelted again. They used the iron to make all kinds of essential tools such as nails, axes, hammers, rakes, hoes, cowbells, plowshares, and horseshoes, as well as pots and pans for cooking, and much more.

At least two lines of my ancestry contain iron working men, a fact that gives me a sense that my ancestors actually contributed to the building of this great country. I love visiting old blacksmith shops. At Allaire State Park in Howell, New Jersey, there is a fully operational blacksmith's shop where you can see demonstrations and even take home a souvenier nail.

Harry Dickinson, my great-great grandfather, was a hammersmith, who worked in the Steel mills at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, upon arrival in America in the 1870s with his father, John Dickinson. It is documented that both his father and grandfather were also hammersmen, and perhaps there were earlier generations of hammersmen as well. The family came from Sheffield, England, a place reknowned for its silverware manufactory and filled with smiths of all kinds. A hammersmith, or hammersman, made hammers out of forged iron.

The Leonard family was one that was active in iron working for several hundred years. My father, for example, knew next to nothing about his Leonard ancestry beyond his grandfather, yet he had been told of a Leonard progenitor who was a blacksmith. We haven't found our connection, if any, to James and Henry Leonard, the reknowned blacksmiths from Pontypool, Wales, who were among the early settlers of New England, but that one clue given to my father suggests a possible connection.

The illustration below shows the iron works the Leonards established at Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1652, the first iron works established at Plymouth Colony and "the first successful ironworks in the United States". It was called "Taunton Iron Works" and was also known as "Leonard Iron Works". The business operated for 220 years, until 1876. The forge was located in present-day Raynham, Massachusetts, on the banks of Forge River. Raynam's town seal proudly states: Site of the First Iron Works in America, 1652. (Click here to read more on Wikipedia)

For thousands of years, the blacksmith trade was passed from father to son. In colonial times, blacksmiths had to apprentice for a minimum of seven years before they could work on their own. Sadly, today most of their descendants don't know the first thing about how metals are made, like myself. When I stumbled upon this book, "The Metallurgy of the Common Metals, gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, and zinc", it immediately interested me. I'm not familiar with the author, Leonard S. Austin's ancestry, but I'd bet he was a Leonard. He held the trade secrets and knew the techniques for metallurgy and in his 1911 book, he passes on the knowlege. You can get a copy on Amazon at a fair price. You can also read it online free of charge at It features many illustrations and technical drawings.



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