Sturbridge Village at Christmas
OSV blacksmith Ethan Choiniere points out the irregularities in an early iron kitchen tool.
Old Sturbridge Village is currently alive with thousands of lights – sparkling on trees and fences outside the early American homes of the 1830s . It’s a special celebration called “Christmas by Candlelight” and a walk around the village is spectacular.
As the dwellings, shops and Meeting House are sourced from New England, they will look familiar to Worcester County residents, though the Christmas decorations they sport would have seemed strange to those who lived during this era. The region then had everything present day holiday makers like to see during this joyful season - plenty of greenery and red winterberries, wood to stoke roaring fires and a knack for pie-making and mulling cider.
Blacksmiths Alan Curboy and Jake Terrenden man the bellows and hammer out iron on anvils at the Bixby forge.
But Christmas didn’t really become a big deal until the mid-1800s when the Puritan hold on the population (and the holiday) finally loosened.
As OSV relaxed some of the strictures on Christmas, there are a few anachronistic touches around the village that are magical, anyway.
Try a stop at the blacksmith’s shop where presents can be created if your wish list includes horseshoes, kitchen utensils and tool repairs.
Neighborhood blacksmiths undertook several different kinds of work in rural New England, and most towns had several blacksmiths. Some specialized in producing edge tools or machinery. Others turned to wheelwrighting and repairing vehicles. Many did general iron work, repairing manufactured and imported tools, shoeing horses and oxen besides making hardware and other metal items needed in the community.
“Your market would depend on whether you were set up on a busy road with with out-of-town business coming through or maybe it’s just my neighbors,” said Ethan Choiniere, the blacksmith at OSV. ‘But either way, I look to them; if I had mills down the road and farms up that way, I work on mill parts and farming equipment. It’s whatever the community needs them to do.”
For a location like Sturbridge, it would basically be shoeing, metal repairs and the fabrication of household things, like spatulas and mulling irons.
The first thing you notice about the blacksmith shop is it’s made of quarried stone rather than wood, – a wise decision since it has two very hot fires with bellows designed to crank up heat on the coals.
When the Blackstone Canal was built in the 1830s it was a boon to farmers who could cheaply ship their goods towards cities as well as a boost to blacksmiths.
It was a two-day trip for the canal boats from Worcester to Providence and another two-day trip to return to Worcester. The overnight stopping point was in Uxbridge, where farm goods or metal from ironworks to deliver to blacksmiths were on or off-loaded.
Blacksmith apprentices usually worked for free or food and lodging, unlike a paid internship of today. The apprenticeship period was a rigorous one taking about 5 to 7 years to complete. Choiniere works with two fellow blacksmiths – Alan Curboy and Jake Terrensen.
The blacksmith shop was once the domain of a man named Emerson Bixby, who owned a white Cape style house across the way from his forge.
The shop gives off a pleasant heat on a chill December day, but must be near suffocating in the height of the summer.
The many tools of blacksmith’s trade are on hand along with the forge, anvil, and bellows. All about the shop are tongs and hammers, wedges and chisels. In the 1830s, blacksmiths mostly used iron because it was cheap and easy to work, Choiniere said.
As the metal glows orange to orange-yellow, it becomes most malleable when it’s red. In its hottest state, the metal can be welded together when it is hit.
“That’s the magic of the blacksmith trade, I think is all in the ability to stick two pieces of metal together,” said Choiniere.
Bixby had to give up his work and toil for others twice in his career – once at the beginning and again towards the end – because there wasn’t enough business for him in the neighborhood to make a living.
Blacksmithing in those days was more like being a solo practitioner, not turning out things at a factory rate.
There were places that could produce at that rate, Choiniere said.
“In East Douglas, they produced 90,000 axes in 1832,” he said.
Old Sturbridge Village is open from 2:00 pm to 8:00pm on December 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29 and 30 for Christmas by Candlelight. Tickets can be purchased online at www.osv.org.