Aug 12, 2023
Off the Grid: A blacksmith, a homestead and a flock of guinea hens
Mike Whitmore shuffled thoughtfully across the fine gravel of his shop floor toward the bellows. In the coal pan, a docile red glow belies the temperatures reached after a few hard pulls on the
Mike Whitmore shuffled thoughtfully across the fine gravel of his shop floor toward the bellows. In the coal pan, a docile red glow belies the temperatures reached after a few hard pulls on the bellows. Whitmore reaches up and tugs on the wooden arm with practiced strokes as the pile of coal comes to life. Tiny embers float upward with excitement then disappear into the cool Maine air.
Whitmore is what one might refer to as “average height,” but it’s hard to tell because he is always in motion and when he pauses, it’s to crouch over a piece of metal he appears to be conversing with. One has the impression he rises and retires with the wide-brimmed leather hat he wears, unruly silver hair beneath it, a Marine’s emblem perched proudly on the front. When he smiles, which is often, one sees most of his remaining teeth and a sparkling curiosity in his eyes.
Blacksmithing, says Whitmore, is, “just talking the metal into doing what I want it to do.”
In Whitmore’s history, that has been anything from coaxing a fishhook out of a lump of something, to pounding out the boom and mast fittings for a two-mast schooner. Sometimes it’s door hardware. Today, it’s a decorative profile of the Selkirk Mountains made from a long bar of 1020 steel. It will be mounted above the door of my new home, a kind of good luck charm. A horseshoe, Whitmore noted, was hardly original.
Whitmore isn’t familiar with these mountains of the northwest, but I sketched a line on a piece of paper for him. He was raised in northern Maine, spent much of his life in Texas moving metal in one fashion or another, then returned to the land of his childhood to homestead with his wife, Cheryl. In his late 60s, he says he feels like 40. His youthful vigor is apparent in every nook of their sprawling acreage.
Every board for every building was milled from trees on his land and passed through his own hands. The pond was dug by his father in the seventies. The squash patch crawls down a lush slope with blossoms as big as a head. The garden grows in an arc of onions, cabbage and carrots. Herbs sprout here or there in bushels of sweet mint or sharp oregano near a greenhouse that is swelling with young tomatoes. Solar panels directed toward the southern sky provide all the power they need.
All of that is rather just necessity to the Whitmores. One needs a place to live and a toilet installed somewhere between the garden and house. (“Me and Cheryl don’t get around as fast as we used to,” he told the permit office.) While each building, swing set, bucket of blooming flowers appears to be manifested with thought and care, nothing shows it quite as much as the blacksmithing shop.
Whitmore’s been blacksmithing most of his life, but his dedication is not merely to the craft. He’s built a shop as close to the authentic blacksmiths of history and maintains a reverent fidelity to their methods. It is why he’s only installed a couple of weak Edison bulbs and hides the blowtorch at the far end.
The bellows – what is maneuvered to blow air into the coals – was handcrafted by him with the help of drawings from a dog-eared book on traditional blacksmithing methods of the 1800s. The manually operated drill press on the wall was defunct until he came across a replacement chuck just the right size at a junk store. He haggled about the $30 for the part, mostly on principle.
Whitmore pulls a glowing rod from the coal. He says not to stare at the center too long as the hot white light can damage the eyes. While his coal is anthracite, he points out that a “real blacksmith” would use bituminous coal for its heating properties. He sets the rod atop an anvil and holds a hammer in his free hand. With several sure strikes, he adds texture to the bar in a rhythmic music that momentarily drowns out the ceaseless squawking of the guinea hens.
“They eat the ticks,” Whitmore said, as if he’d long tuned out their Paleolithic cackling, considering it part of the symphony of chickens, ducks and geese.
“The geese must be coming back,” he said, looking skyward toward a distant honking. “They taught the four babies to fly the other day and now they’ve been taking them up to strengthen them.” Minutes later, two Canadian geese and their goslings settle in the pond.
What Whitmore really wants to do, now that the industriousness of the last three years has settled into an operational homestead, is teach people how to blacksmith. When he starts talking about the role of the craft throughout history, it is evident that he knows his passion well and wants to share it with others. It goes beyond the quality of craftsmanship and the possibilities of blacksmithing into something of more substance, perhaps even spiritual.
As he hammers and bends one peak into just the curve he wants, he talks about the empowerment of learning skills and of his constant humility about it. Years ago, when admiring the hinges and metalwork at a nearby cabin, the owner said, “Don’t you recognize your own work?”
“I guess from time to time, I am reminded my work is good,” he says, holding up the now dark piece of metal with a scrupulous stare. The curve is imperceptible to the eye of the journalist, but Whitmore isn’t having it.
“Let’s get that curve out,” he says as he lays the piece back on the anvil.
At his homestead outside of Ellsworth, Maine, one can enjoy his private campground and blacksmithing lessons. (I recommend the site across the wooden bridge on the island in the middle of the pond. The frogs are fantastic, the guineas almost distant.)
With any luck, Cheryl Whitmore will bustle out and share one of her fine oil paintings with you. It will probably be of her husband leaning over an anvil, hammer in one hand, the glow of the coal lighting up his playful features.
What is offered in Whitmore’s shop is far more than a course in metallurgy or making a horseshoe. What he teaches is the importance of enthusiasm for learning, and that when we are willing to learn, we open ourselves to limitless possibilities. One might argue it’s rather a template for wholehearted living or aging with a measure of grace and grit.
Blacksmithing seems like a fine place to start.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at [email protected]
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