Blacksmiths et al.

Are there any blacksmiths left?

I can still remember when they existed around here.  I can also still remember elevator operators, TV repairmen who came to your home, and the guys who pumped the gas at service stations (they also washed the windshield and checked the oil and tire pressure).  Those jobs are all gone now.  Until a couple of years ago there was an old man in our county seat who owned and operated a saddlery.  He repaired saddles and was one of only a handful of full-time saddlers left in the country.  There may not be any left now.  I suppose these days for those few people who use saddles if something goes wrong with it they just buy a new one.

At Lowes and Home Depot these days they have self-service check out lines–no cashier required.  They seem to be adding more of those lines.  Maybe someday soon cashiers will go the way of elevator operators.

The cover story of the November issue of Successful Farming (an industrial ag magazine) was titled “The Robots are Coming!”  It described robot technology that is beginning to emerge, designed to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for human labor on industrial farms.  Oh boy.

I suppose elevator operators are no great loss.  And these days we have IT departments, software designers and fracking crews, so as jobs go technological change both gives and takes away.  But the trend seems to be for replacement of human labor with machines and a throw-away culture.

We live in a culture and age that depends upon industrialization to provide jobs, yet the aim of industrialization (as Wendell Berry has being saying for a long time) is ultimately to replace humans with machines. But at the same time, industrialization itself depends upon consumers, who increasingly derive their wages from industrialization.  Those wages of course are fed back to industrialization to generate the profits that enable more technology, which in turn renders more jobs obsolete and thus over time reduces the consumer wages upon which industry depends.  It reminds me of the image of a snake swallowing itself.


It seems to me that what a sustainable culture needs are not “jobs,” but vocations.


31 comments on “Blacksmiths et al.

  1. Liz Snider says:

    Hi Bill,
    We still have those professions here in Albuquerque!! The gas station in my neighborhood is self serve but it’s a family owned station and they will come out and pump your gas if you want them too. At my place of employment we only accept cash or check(small retail coffee roaster). We let some folks, if they forgot about that cash check policy, to drop off their payment or mail it in, while taking their purchase with them. It’s called trust I guess. Not to say that this is the norm here at all. There is a saddle repair shop just down the road.
    I appreciate your blog every morn.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks Liz. Your comment makes me smile. Glad to know there are still businesses like that.

      I can’t remember the last time I saw a “full serve” gas station. Or a service station for that matter. Nowadays it seems that gas pumps are at “convenience” stores and you can’t buy gas at the places you go to have your vehicle serviced. But of course it may be different in other places.

      At the country stores when I was a boy you could just run a tab and settle up every now and then. There’s only one store left out here now (there were 4 between here and there when I was growing up), and I think you can still do that there, as long as they know you. That’s a real benefit of community, it seems to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. shoreacres says:

    We really do live in different worlds. There are dozens of custom saddle makers and saddle repair shops in Texas. A woman I’m working with right now just took one of her saddles in to have some stitching done and a stirrup repaired.

    I personally know five or six blacksmiths. I often stop in Kerrville to see what the shop there is up to, and this fellow is really close to me. And of course there are the farriers, too.

    On Christmas Day, the people I visited in Port O’Connor, down on the Texas coast, had a serious plumbing problem. They got a plumber to come and take care of it, driving 40 miles each way from Port Lavaca. And yes, it was Christmas, and no, there weren’t any mileage charges, although the plumbers certainly got a bonus on top of the bill.

    It’s true that technology has made some jobs more difficult or impossible for “just folks.” My car comes to mind. I can change oil and gap spark plugs, but most of what my car does now seems to require computers and all that involves. But work in a real, physical world requires people who know how to produce and repair real products, and I’m glad I live in a place where that still happens.

    (And of course there are those boats…)


    • Bill says:

      Texas and Virginia are surely different (and Houston and Keeling certainly are) but I suspect it’s more a case of my ignorance or poor examples than a difference of worlds. While there are a few blacksmiths around (we watched one working at a friend’s farm store a few weeks ago) the ones I’m familiar with tend to be making sculpture or art, rather than nails and horseshoes. Until about a generation ago there was a blacksmith shop on this farm and likely at least one in every community. The farrier regularly comes out here to tend to Rowan. When I was a boy the farrier pulled a wagon with a forge, bellows and anvil where he’d hammer out the shoes for the draft horses. Maybe our farrier still does that too but just doesn’t need to do it here. We called our vet our last year on the Saturday night before Christmas to stitch up Rowan’s rear end after our Great Pyr bit him. Because we were able to text him a photo of the wound (a benefit of technology), he was able to determine that it wasn’t so urgent that he had to leave the Christmas party he and his wife were hosting. When the guests left, he came on out and took care of Rowan. No extra charge.

      As for the saddlery, obviously I was wrong about that. When ours closed I could’ve sworn I read that the saddler was one of the last of his breed. Glad to know that wasn’t true. I tried unsucessfully to find the article I think I remember, but found these instead, which you might enjoy.;

      Mr. Shelton had already passed away when we took in an old saddle we found here to Mr. Womack to be restored. Going into the shop there felt like stepping back in time.

      I’m assuming that y’all don’t still have elevator operators out there. 🙂


  3. Joanna says:

    One of the joys of living in Latvia is that there are folks that can fix things. Finding them sometimes is the hard part and trying to find a builder is a nightmare – I think all the good ones are across in the UK or Ireland at the moment. Not sure about blacksmiths exactly, but plenty of metal workers


    • Bill says:

      It’s almost always cheaper now to replace an appliance than to repair it. Our HVAC guy told me that one of the reasons is that things are built now to be as cheap as possible. They don’t last, but they’re more affordable on the front end. Televisions used to cost hundreds of dollars, but they’d last a lifetime. Now they’re far cheaper than they were 30 years ago (You can buy a new color TV now for what I paid for a beat up black and white at a yard sale in 1982, for example) and it makes no economic sense to repair them when they break down. It’s cheaper just to throw it away and buy a new one.

      We watched a documentary about Cuba not long ago and it was really neat to see how they are still using (and taking care of) items they imported before the embargo began over 50 years ago.


  4. Zambian Lady says:

    I remember the first time I went to a self-serve filling station in the US. I asked my friend if the station was closed because there were no pump men (or whatever they are called). She said it was open, jumped out and pumped gas herself. I was shocked!

    In Zambia, people still repair things and the habit of throwing away broken down things is not yet ingrained in people that much.


    • Bill says:

      I remember when the first self-serve gas station opened here. Credit cards weren’t ubiquitous yet so you had to feed bills into a slot. There was no attendant at all–the pumps were just sitting alone on a concrete pad. It was futuristic but didn’t work very well and soon closed.

      When we lived in Tampa there was one hold-out service station in our neighborhood. The owner (or an employee) would come out and pump the gas and if your car needed service he’d do that too. My wife would fill up there when our son was still an infant so she wouldn’t have to get out of the car and leave him in it. But that place couldn’t survive long and it closed about 20 years ago.


  5. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, the blacksmiths of to day are known as metal fabricators. At least that’s what they are in Nebraska. The old time forge operated hammer on the anvil blacksmiths are pretty much a thing of the past here. As 3-D printers become cheaper and more perfected the day of the metal worker will be obsolete. Already, obsolete parts are being made with 3-D printers.

    Robotic tractors are nearly ready for production. The robot monsters can be sent to the field to do the field work and monitored with a laptop as the work is accomplished. I would imagine their cost would be phenomenal. Since one robot could work day and night without rest, it would be a bit costly to own one for such little use for one farm. I envision cooperative ownership that could share the cost for one machine or perhaps they could be rented by the hour or day from the dealership. Robotic machines could migrate starting in the southern states and work there way north as the weather permits then repeat the migration at harvest time. Whether we like it or not robotics are coming and will be here sooner than we think. I’m personally not an advocate of a machine that tries to be smarter than me hence I still have a cell phone that can’t think but even that is getting more difficult to find.

    Google cars are on the road in California. As life moves forward, robotic cars that drive themselves will become more prominent. It’s sad for this old boy, that was a teenager to during the era of 1960s muscle cars, to see a time when driving is left to the computer. Very sad indeed.

    Have a great old fashioned homestead day.


    • Bill says:

      Great comment Dave. I confess to being baffled by the 3-D printer concept. I just can’t get my head around it. I’ve read that entire housing projects have been built in China using “printed out” materials. Evidently it’s possible to email and print out a functioning gun. And recently I read that they’re developing the technology to print food, like on Star Trek.

      Given the pace of technological change, and thinking back at how much amazing stuff has happened in the past 20 years, it’s mind-boggling to think of what the world might look like 20 years from now. Self-driving cars may be the least of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        I believe, the replicators on Star Trek came about as an off-shoot of transporter technology… After all, once you’ve disassembled and reassembled things often enough, starting from (molecular) scratch would be fairly simple; ). Btw, all waste was also fed back into the replicator system: et voilà, no more waste disposal problems! (The ultimate in recycling: )


  6. bobraxton says:

    ensō (円相 , “circle”) is a circle that is hand-drawn in one … uninhibited brushstroke.

    I have a vague memory of a 1960’s song:

    “my job is not my work
    my work is not my life.”

    “Call” is all (not part of that song).
    The end of about 49 years of paid employment
    the last day of June 2009 (for me).
    Now I have my “call” – to write the kind of brushstroke
    every day.


    • Bill says:

      The concept of “calling” gets at what I was trying to say with this post. My point (poorly conveyed) wasn’t so much about blacksmiths or saddlers per se.

      It seems to me that industrialization replaces vocations with mere “jobs,” then destroys those jobs. Vocations and trades helped sustain functioning communities. “Jobs,” on the other hand, are often tasks that have provide no value to a community.

      Maybe writing a blog post isn’t the best way to wake up in the morning. 🙂


      • farmerkhaiti says:

        I picked up what you were laying down here! CRAFTSMANSHIP! I just read this quote by Bill Gates about how in 10-20 years computers are going to be “doing” many of the things “workers” do now. What is going to happen to the world? We all just become consuming machines who actually do nothing else?

        Liked by 1 person

  7. valbjerke says:

    Our farrier is a very capable blacksmith (young fellow in his thirties – also has his bachelors degree in engineering). Our farm vet is 100% ‘mobile’ – can do a C-section on a cow in the field, ultrasound your horse etc.
    I think if you ask around a bit you’ll probably find many skilled people in your area too 🙂


    • Bill says:

      I’m sure of it. Our farm vet does that too. Our farrier may well be a blacksmith too, but our horse doesn’t wear shoes so we’ve never needed him to make any. The next time he’s out here I’m definitely going to find out, as my curiosity is stoked now.

      I sure wish I hadn’t used blacksmiths and saddlers for my examples. 🙂 But it is cool to see people coming to the defense of their local blacksmith. Still, I’d wager than in our culture 99.9% of people will go their entire lives without ever using the services of a blacksmith, whereas in the not too distant past almost everyone would have needed a blacksmith’s services.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Pretty sure that the blacksmith/ferrier was(is: ) also the veterinarian and most people knew the basics of herbal remedy and I am constantly amazed by how much they remember about what their own families did for such things: )

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Three of the four local gas stations have pump jockeys for one set of pumps, with the other set available for self serve. I too remember elevator operators, they were always in those elevators that had two sets of doors – the criss cross one and the solid one. We have a blacksmiths club here on the Island, and they have a good membership, maybe a dozen guys and gals or more who do various kinds of work – decorative, useful, etc. But yes, I take your point – some jobs are disappearing and will be a thing of the past. I really hate those self serve things at Home Depot, but I have to admit,we’ve gone to self check machines in all the branches of our library system (where I work), and while that is no doubt the precursor to having fewer staff in the library, I must say that I can see why they’re practical. Bank machines come to mind.


    • Bill says:

      Well my question about blacksmiths has been answered. Evidently the trade is flourishing. 🙂

      When I began practicing law in 1985 every attorney had a secretary. Nowadays a secretary is assigned to 3 lawyers. The young folks coming out of law school these days really don’t even need secretaries any more. They’re skilled typists and do all their own word processing. I have a dictation program on my computer (provided by my old firm) that allows me to dictate documents and the computer types them up almost error-free. My original firm had about 50 lawyers and 2 full-time librarians. Now my firm, with over 100 lawyers, has just one part-time (outsourced) librarian (yet vastly more research resources). I expect that sort of thing is true in nearly every business, as technology replaces human labor.


  9. avwalters says:

    I remember all of those professions, too, though by the time I came along the blacksmiths were mostly trinket artisans. We are, as a country, vastly more productive than we were in days past. Part of that is because of technology, and part because our workers work harder and the work is “crammed down” to consumers themselves (the self-service gasoline, the self-check out line.) The gains of all this productivity are not being shared with the workers–who now cannot afford the products they produce. We have become the biggest banana republic–corporate profits and powers having usurped the purpose of our culture. Like Orwell’s view, the hope is in “the proles,” those outside the system, either by choice or passed over. I have no desire to feed the machine. I am more than happy to live a less consumer-driven lifestyle in exchange for the substance of living. And here we all are, debating the best of food, of garden practice, of humanity. In this, there is hope.


    • Bill says:

      Yes! Very well said.

      I take hope there too. Amid all the reasons to despair, there are also great reasons to be encouraged.

      Hope you all are staying warm. The freezing weather has made it down to here now. Wind is howling outside and according to our thermometer it is 9 outside (at 7:30 p.m.) We have 6 new kids who are in warm barn stalls. I’m hoping none of the other mamas end up kidding tonight!


  10. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Hmm, Jobs vs Technology: Henry Ford ~ Roger & Me…
    The passive resistance of standing in line with others and waiting for a real cashier instead of using the wide open “self-serve” lanes…
    What skill does it take to plow a field by GPS? Does a machine know the perfect time when hay is dry enough to flip and bale? Do pigs have affection for the bars that confine them?
    “Successful Farming”? Depends on your definition of “success”, I guess; )
    We’re a Throw-Back(to a better time) community here in Northumberland County; the countryside is chockfull of ancient Native Culture, family farms, artists & artisans – fixers and makers – NOT a throw away society.


    • Bill says:

      Bravo Northumberland! The responses to this post have been encouraging. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that folks who read this blog would tend to know blacksmiths, saddlers and the like, and live in places where their value is appreciated.

      By the way, whatever skill is needed to plow by GPS, it too is about to become obsolete. There are robots being rolled out now that do all the field work without any humans, except perhaps the “farmer” monitoring it from a laptop somewhere.


      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Skill levels? From what I’ve heard, it’s a great time to get caught up on your knitting – while babysitting GPS-enabled “farm” equipment, that is..

        Liked by 1 person

  11. jubilare says:

    And then, there’s the problem of humans being deprived of physical work. There are levels of physical labor that can be harmful and abusive, but… as I am sure you know, first hand, there is something about physical labor that is good for us, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I can’t help but think that, instead of “relieving” us of some onerous thing, we are depriving ourselves of something necessary to our wellbeing.


    • Bill says:

      Amen. Your comment brings to mind this from Wendell Berry:

      The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

      Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

      But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

      And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

      And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

      More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

      More here:

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    One of the things I thought of when reading your post was how we no longer live the “slow life” that allowed us to sit still long enough for the attendant to pump our gas, clean our windshields, and check our oil. We just jump out, insert card, pump gas, jump back in and away we go!

    Wait for a tv repairman?! No way! Off to the big box store open late hours to purchase the newest and biggest model we can (or can’t) afford. Buy now, pay later!

    When I was a child in the 70s, my father was a tv repairman. Had his own business. Enjoyed the social part of his work as much as the technical.

    Funny how these changes become our new reality without us noticing until its too late…


    • Bill says:

      So true.

      I have the farm records from this place going back to the 1880’s. Way back then they didn’t buy many things. Most everything they needed was made or produced here on the farm, and there wasn’t much money or many places to spend it in any event. But when they did buy something, they always saved the receipt. And in those days the receipt wasn’t something that was coughed out of a machine. Receipts were beautifully handwritten. Amazing calligraphy. Seeing them causes me to imagine that commercial transactions like that were a big deal, not to be rushed through. Contrast that with today where, as you say, the faster the better.


  13. Your last line resonates with me particularly strongly. I would additionally say that a *humane* culture needs vocations. The more of us that find our true vocations, the more comfortable, contented, and civil we become, and in turn, that *does* make our culture more sustainable. Thanks for the thoughtful post!


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