Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Build A Smithy, and They Will Come; Strategies for Museum Development

Recently, over twenty five people showed up for the first meeting of the Fields Pond Blacksmith Association at The Curran Homestead Living History Farm and Museum in Orrington, ME. Jim Heckman, a long time blacksmithing hobbyist, offered to get a charcoal fire going on one of the portable forges donated. The coal in the forge was ignited after some coaxing and a rod of metal was heated. The din of hammer play on that rod of metal prefaced a circle forming of blacksmithing enthusiasts around the forge itself on a night with the chill of autumn in the air.
The people that showed up were from distances near and far and of varying skill level as we learned as the first meeting unfolded. The attendance was far more than I had expected; and this recent public enthusiasm is indicative of a favorable turn in our development as a small Maine museum.

The Maine State Museum, with funds from the State of Maine’s New Century Community Program, awarded The Curran Homestead a $2,651.44 Historical Facilities Grant to both improve their collections storage for their blacksmithing tools and equipment while also creating educational programming that focuses on this traditional art. Through generous donations, we have amassed the key equipment for a typical late-19th century smithy and this will be used for both static display and hands-on demonstrations.

Master blacksmith Bob Robinson of the Split Rock Forge in Stockton Springs, ME was especially instrumental in the original design of our smithy and the acquisition of the core of our forge equipment. Robinson went through a formal apprenticeship as a blacksmith in his youth, and continues to work at a forge he built in the 60s. He has done demonstrations at some of The Curran Homestead's past events, and their popularity largely influenced our decision to create a permanent forge for events and education.

I think Doug Wilson, a longtime blacksmith with national recognition from Little Deer Isle, ME, who was among the attendees of the Fields Pond Blacksmith Association, really summed it up when he said that he wondered where he had been when all this readily-apparent interest in blacksmithing had suddenly evolved among men and women of all ages in eastern Maine as he looked around the impromptu circle of enthusiasts that had formed in the barnyard during the first meeting. The breadth of public interest in blacksmithing has become even more apparent since then as dozens of other blacksmithing enthusiasts have made contact with The Curran Homestead.

The other surprise was that there were so many different blacksmithing agendas expressed among our fledgling group. There were those interested in making knives, but there were also those interested in the ornamental, architectural, and the restoration of historical objects using forge methods. Our smithy has since been designed and built large enough to accommodate a wagon, sleigh, or piece of farm machinery for the purpose of repair or restoration. There were also some interested in becoming farriers. Ken Hamilton, who creates 17th and 18th century Indian, French, English and Dutch fur trade reproductions for museums and the like was also on hand. If this isn't an eclectic group then I don't know what is. This group is going to have some fun making stuff together.

After some great conversation around the forge and in our 19th century farmhouse, discussion focused on the creation of the smithy itself. It was a given that stick construction with hemlock and a gravel floor would contribute to the smithy’s historic look, but we also came up with tentative plans for a more efficient side draft masonry chimney design. We have since decided on a two flue chimney with two fire pans attached to them. The construction of the pans has since been promised by a welding class at Washington County Community College.

Considering this number of enthusiasts we chose to electrify the structure and heat it with a wood stove so that it can be used all the time. Utility sometimes took precedence over any strict adherence to some historically accurate aesthetic; we want this place to be looked at, used on a regular basis, and contribute to keeping this traditional art alive and thriving. We plan to hide our lighting fixtures from the purists and work into the night when we can. To the concern of some of our more knowledgeable smithy consultants on another occasion just the opposite was true when form took precedence over function by the volunteers constructing the building. There was seemingly an impromptu decision to adopt a clerestory roof design during construction. In addition to its aesthetic appeal, the design promised to lessen the need for artificial light and welcome solar heat during the winter months. As any knowledgeable blacksmith would point out, in order to judge accurately the color indicators of metal temperature a dimly lit workspace is essential. The clerestory threatened such future judgments. In order to rectify this, it was agreed that steps would be taken to diffuse some of the anticipated seasonal light as well as limit it to the central floor area where there will be no forges located. An obviously appealing building design was saved.

The idea of forming a blacksmith association was a strategy for getting more people interested in what we are doing at The Curran Homestead and getting volunteers to help us do it. Given the progress we have made in constructing the smithy since that meeting, it seems that our goal will be met. Sponsoring this association has also served us in finding a large pool of practicing blacksmiths that are contributing their stories to our oral history archive that, in part, focuses on traditional arts like forging and knife-making. In doing this we realized that creating an oral history archive with an even broader scope was necessitated and had the potential to improve our relevancy to an even larger audience offering more to scholars and educators alike. We are working on making excerpts from these digital recordings available online and an integral part of our future web-based teacher resources. These resources are intended for not only schools within commuting distance that we hope to attract regularly to our physical plant in the coming year, but a larger community of educators that we will assist in making connections with the culture of their own rural communities.

We have recently broadened the scope of our museum collection to include specifically objects that exemplify Yankee ingenuity. In addition, we have sought interviews that directly connect with the ingenious creation of devices, tools, and machinery used on the farm, in the woods, and in the rural homes in Maine. From small hand-tools and hardware to large objects like “jitterbugs,” including homemade log skidders and tractors made from Ford Model Ts and As, these are especially appealing examples of the Yankee ingenuity of the rural Mainer. The re-configuration and re-purposing involved of the discarded, the obsolete, and the used were often the product of economic and geographic necessity that is still very relevant to Maine life. We realize that these important objects are quickly disappearing due to antique auto parts hunters, recyclers, and out-of-state collectors, and it is our hope to preserve a sampling of this part of Maine heritage.

This new focus has come in lieu of an earlier mission to recreate horse-drawn farming. The expense of training and maintaining draft horses, made even more relevant by the fact of having only 30 plus acres with relatively little tillable land, make such a venture unfeasible. Demonstrating early 20th century mechanization on our farm and in our woods with tractor conversions, “make and break” engines, and early tractors like Fordsons is relatively less expensive and promises to distinguish us from other Maine living history museums with similar farming and lumbering themes of other eras. We simply want to offer something that others don’t, and we believe we have finally struck on a way to do that.

We hope to generate the same public enthusiasm for future projects as the recent blacksmithing project. Several of these restoration projects are planned and will result in future demonstrations with a recently purchased 1918 Sears & Roebuck Tractor Conversion, a donated Model A and a Model B pulp log skidder, and a Model T saw mill rig once operated by the Currans themselves. We hope to organize a corps of volunteers interested in pooling their mechanical skills and their desire to learn by doing for this purpose. The reconstruction and operation of a recently donated 19th century shingle mill building is also planned as another step forward in creating multiple scenarios to capture public interest and give all a taste of the past that made us what we are today.

It is the mission of The Curran Homestead to preserve the traditions of the family farm, self-reliance, and ingenuity which were part of so many Americans’ past. Through the continued preservation of our 19th century farmstead and our collections as well as our adaptability to the public’s ever changing desire for new ways to learn and appreciate information, we hope to both preserve a bit of Maine as well as our American heritage so that it may continue to mold future generations.

We anticipate that our recent collecting habits and construction projects will work symbiotically with our effort to increase membership and create a unique brand for our museum. We plan to realize an even greater number of scenarios for our proposed daily programming which we are poised to do for the first time after nearly two decades of limiting our public exposure to four or five annual weekend events. Realizing our financial limitations as a struggling non-profit entity in eastern Maine, we have struck on something that promises to build a unique collection of objects immensely relative to Maine heritage with relatively little money. What makes these objects especially valuable is that we require them to have local provenance documented by a recorded oral history of those who owned, created, or used them.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Comments For Blog Stories

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Channel 7 TV Coverage to be found at the right.

Click the arrow in the middle of the video clip screen to the right.