When Bruce Kenyon stepped into the blacksmith shop at the Fort Larned National Historic Site, a century of progress takes a vacation.
Kenyon was a Bison, Kansas resident who normally teaches second grade students at Timken, Kansas. In his spare time, however, he keeps the art of blacksmithing alive.
He does not, however, accomplish that goal by simply pounding away at metals kept in the shop. Instead, the 58-year-old Kenyon took on the role of the Fort Larned National Historical Site's, blacksmith during the late 1800's.
"Probably when Fort Larned was going strong, they probably had eight to 10 blacksmiths," he said.
His leather apron is just as functional today as it was more than a century ago, but the clothes he wears underneath the apron are characteristic of the era he portrays. Even the small, oval-shaped spectacles relay the fact that over one hundred years have passed since the fort was abandoned as an outpost on the Santa Fe Trail.
The blacksmith shop utilizes much more than clothing from a century ago, to help turn the clock back. An "1867 model" hearth the fort's original is fired up on all but the hottest days to heat the metal needed to make a variety of objects. The bellows and the hearth make up the forge.
Metal heated to a bright red color measures in at about 1,400 degrees; white hot metal is about 1,700 degrees. At the bottom of the forge, the temperature climbs to about 2,400 degrees. Coal is the source of energy used to heat the metal.
"One thing about it, when you use coal, you don't change the personality of the iron," he said.
Kenyon's favorite demonstration piece is a lantern hook, each of which he makes with powerful, adept hands. His trademark, a twist in the middle, goes on each hook, which was used to hang lanterns and foodstuffs from the rafters.
Today, he said, it can be used to hang pots of petunias. "Guaranteed to make them grow," he would tell the children stopping by the shop. "I think most of my work is talking to the people," I think they genuinely enjoy watching something being made."
Were blacksmiths like a cowboy, shooting people and stuff?" a young boy asked during one demonstration. "No, we were a peaceful bunch," Kenyon answered, hammers of all shapes and sizes, were in use during the 1870s. "Whatever we do has to be authentic." Few items of modern day origin are in view, by Kenyon's choice.
Kenyon's role as a blacksmith is not out of character. He started working in his uncle's blacksmith shop when he was 10 years old.
His connection with the fort came about almost four years ago, when salaried park rangers asked for volunteers, especially those with skills dating back to the era of the fort. "There's not too many blacksmiths around," So few in fact, that when Kenyon is away from the fort, the living blacksmith display is not available. Being something of a self confessed "history nut" has proven to be a asset.
His blacksmithing duties are not limited to those performed at the fort He can do almost the same at his home in Bison, Kansas. "It's light duty," Kenyon said of the forge he uses at home. "I should say I have about five forges but use the one." Despite his frequent practice at the forge, Kenyon has spent several summers in Montana attending blacksmithing workshops. He also takes his personal forge, a portable model, to a 4-H fair in Colorado.
"There's a high interest in blacksmithing," he said. "Especially with little kids. They've never seen a forge."
What with his teaching duties, Kenyon lacks the time to teach an apprentice the art of a blacksmith.
You could run through the basics," he said. "But from then on, they would have to do it on their own. If I was going to tell a youngster how to start, I would say to read everything you can. "Be patient. Sometimes it doesn't work out. That's why you have a big iron pile."
Even with that, Kenyon has few plans of dousing the fire in the forge anytime soon. "I guess as long as I keep it as a hobby," he said of his blacksmithing job. "Some people play golf: it depends on what you want to do.
I think that's the highlight of it if it wasn't interesting, I wouldn't do it. Let someone else do it.
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