Blacksmiths bring new projects to longstanding tradition
Forget sleighbells: we’re ringing in this holiday with an anvil and a hammer.
The blacksmiths at Rush Ranch have a fantastic project lined up for Get the Rush (December 16th). From 10 to 12:30, they’ll work alongside kids to fashion decorative candy canes out of rebar.
The project, which should take between ten and fifteen minutes, makes a great gift or keepsake. But the real satisfaction is in making the piece yourself, by hand, working beside real forges and wielding real hammers.
Going informally for now as the “Rush Ranch Smiths,” skilled volunteers Carol de Maintenon, Joe Hoberg, Eric Gantos, and Paul Corning are collaborating to share the art and joy of blacksmithing in this historic location.
Carol de Maintenon and Joe Hoberg forge a Candy Cane out of Rebar
The volunteers stepped forward to run the shop following the passing of blacksmith—and legendary Solano Land Trust volunteer—Virgil Sellers in 2022. They have since forged a small community based around creativity, collaboration, and enthusiasm for a craft with a history stretching back thousands of years.
And on the land you protected at Rush Ranch, you’ll find the smiths giving free lessons to youth who wish to test their mettle.
Joe Hoberg and the late Virgil Sellers
Three Smiths: Paul Corning, Colton Carley, and Joe Hoberg
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Daniel Garvin, Paul Corning, & Carol de Maintenon
Trial by fire
“They used to call the blacksmith the king of all craftsmen!” Carol de Maintenon says, heating the forge to make a prototype of the candy cane. She notes some blacksmiths were queens too. Blacksmithing was often a family affair, and smiths’ wives would take over a shop when they passed.
The Benicia resident has been volunteering at Rush Ranch for a year. Dexterously skilled from previous work as a nurse and running a hardware store, she began taking blacksmithing classes some years ago at the Crucible in Oakland, an industrial arts school that also offers lessons in woodworking, neon, and other disciplines.
Carol’s courses observe curriculum standards set by the California Blacksmithing Association. She felt she wasn’t at the level to lead classes, but she visited the blacksmith shop anyway during Get the Rush. Rush Ranch’s caretaker Joe Hoberg was helping kids forge swords from nails. Carol kept making overtures to introduce herself, but Joe was busy and the shop was loud. Knowing her way around a shop, she made herself useful. When the session ended, she helped Joe shut down the forge, and a connection was sparked.
“Carol brought a lot of knowledge and experience,” Joe says. “It’s led to a better atmosphere with more creativity. I’ve made leaf keychains, hooks, candy canes.”
Joe considers himself more an apprentice or a “striker” than a smith (a striker was the blacksmith’s helper—they kept the hammer swinging). Joe was recruited into the shop by the late Virgil Sellers, the mechanically gifted veteran who had found his way to Rush Ranch decades earlier, fixed and revamped everything he touched, and volunteered until his late 80s.
The new batch of volunteers has kept the anvil ringing at the shop renamed in Virgil’s honor.
Carrying on the tradition in an authentic setting
Once you learn the basics, blacksmithing offers routes both for specialists and people who like to work broadly on a variety of projects.
Volunteer Paul Corning is a skilled farrier, meaning he can make horseshoes and trim hooves.
“Every farrier is a blacksmith, but not every blacksmith is a farrier,” Carol says. Nor is every smith a blacksmith. There are also whitesmiths (who work on cold metals), goldsmiths, and tinsmiths.
But for adaptability and range, blacksmithing reigns supreme. Before mass production, villages relied on blacksmiths for many essentials. In remote communities in the American West, a blacksmith’s day might include casting parts for a wagon wheel, creating crockery, or doing
dentistry work. In the guilds of Europe, smiths gained status by undertaking tasks of increasing complexity, challenge, and specialization; the courses Carol takes today follow their progression.
Even for hobbyists, the skills transition to many disciplines. Anyone who clangs away at blacksmithing in earnest will have to memorize a suite of French loanwords (tuyères; quenchant), employ principles of mathematics and physics, and know the techniques behind turning forks, punches, chisels, and shelves of other tools. Once you hone your craft, you can even build useful objects for other pursuits; Land Trust Docent Dennis Wells, who has volunteered in the shop, creates excellent herb choppers.
And above all, you learn safety—without which a blacksmithing attempt can be memorable, unpleasant, and short. Goggles are essential; polyester is forbidden; shoes should be sturdy; processes must be followed and pacing maintained.
“One of the first things we show the kids is we dip the hot tongs in the slack tub and the water sizzles,” Carol says. “They understand that.”
They also get a smattering of history, especially at Rush Ranch, where they’re working in a setting with deep and notable roots in Suisun City. The shop, barn, and mail-order “kit house” trace back to when Benjamin Rush ranched the land from 1875 to 1920; Benjamin served six terms in the state senate and was the first president of the Solano County Agricultural Society. His father, Hiram, brought the family out west, and designed Suisun City’s masonic lodge.
“There’s historical value in keeping blacksmith shops like this alive,” Joe says. Carol mentions that parks across California and the nation have demonstration blacksmiths offering visitors free shows and lessons on the forge.
Joe has been trying to go through and identify the materials that were original to the shop. If the anvil isn’t the genuine article it sure looks the part, clamped to a sturdy eucalyptus log that could have come from the grove nearby. It would take a skilled eye for anachronism to find fault with the packed earth forge.
Smithing in the era of screens and automation
But as the wealth of interest on Reddit, YouTube, and elsewhere attests, blacksmithing retains a contemporary appeal.
When the rebar had been reshaped into canes and Carol was pulling out the clinkers—shiny peanut-brittle-shaped clusters of the coke and other elements that didn’t break down—she mentioned that she had begun her morning with a blacksmithing lesson over Zoom (with fellow participants in Norway, no less).
At Rush Ranch, Carol sees kids enjoying the challenge and precision of the tasks and the exciting setting. She singled out young Colton Carley as someone who has been showing great progress in his work.
“The hand-eye coordination it develops is so important,” Joe says. “And there’s this organic element to working with your hands.”
It’s that love of the physical that drew Joe to Rush Ranch in the first place, volunteering with the horses at Access Adventure. Like the smiths of yore, his handiness made him a welcome and useful part of the community. He, Carol, Paul, and Eric are using the skills they learned to give back to a world where practical know-how is in short supply—and high demand.
While AI systems could have written some version of this article, those robots can’t fire up a forge, much less fit a horseshoe.
AI also can’t enjoy the communal feeling that comes when people collaborate on something they believe in. That’s the feeling that brings the smiths back to the shop, ready to spark an interest in the kids putting on their goggles and taking up their hammers for the first time.
Standing near the warmth of the forge at calm, scenic Rush Ranch, the old ways are still treasured, and newcomers are always welcome.
Join the Rush Ranch Smiths at Get the Rush on Saturday, December 16th from 10:00 to 12:30 to make rebar candy canes.
Do you have blacksmith skills and an interest in volunteering? Do you have equipment to donate to the shop? Contact email@example.com