Settlers and Pioneers
19 — The Smithy
Although the motor-car drove the horse off the fatally smooth highway and off most farms, it seems rather early in the day to regard the once indispensable shoeing forge as little more than a museum curiosity, an antique. Yet that is the fate that has overtaken a trade which only a generation ago employed many hundreds of men in this country.
A time there was when—to paraphrase Goldsmith a trifle—every village, however small, maintained its smith. The very name of Smith, our most popular citizen, betokens the ancient fact that no community could do without its skilful workers in iron. With us the township smithy was an institution which immediately followed the store and was followed by the dairy factory, the school, and the public hall in the story of settlement. No group of farms could do without its shoeing forge. Fortunately there will come renewed need for the farrier's expert trade outside the cities, but the anvils are silent that once rang in many a wayside smithy along our busy page 128routes for coach and wagon and horseman. Recently the last smithy in Wellington was closed down for demolition, its business gone. There are backblock ways and rough country where the automobile cannot travel, and a blacksmith still plies his trade here and there in farming centres and where the hack and the draught horse still are useful. Some large stations have their own shoeing forges. A new smithy has been opened near the Auckland racehorse training establishments. The racing sport steadily calls for shoes for the tender-soled thoroughbred. But a generation of young New Zealanders is corning along that has never looked in at the open door 'to see the flaming forge and hear the bellows roar.' On the farms the workers know more about the tractor than the horse.
The country smith of my time was a perfect master of ironcraft; he could manufacture many things in an emergency which did not belong to his main vocation of horse-shoeing. He could not only mend tools but make new ones. There was nothing, seemingly, that he could not do with his fire and anvil and hammer and pincers.
Then he was wise in horse lore. He could tell often enough what was the matter with a horse when the owner could not diagnose its ailment. He could extract its teeth, or file them where they needed it. He could show careless owners where ill-fitting harness caused suffering. He could make branding page 129irons, an ornamental iron gate, repair a broken-down wagon. He could swiftly remodel shoes to fit a horse, after a glance at it. Great heaps of horseshoes lay in a corner, others hung on the wall, where long bars of iron were laid on nails.
It was a high and honourable calling in the old time, was the smith's. In our pioneer days the blacksmith had perforce, often enough, to become armourer as in medieval times. There was a smith in Auckland town in 1863 who was as useful and skilful a weapon-maker as that blacksmith in Arkansas who made the famous bowie knives of American and Mexican border history. (They were called after Colonel Bowie, who was a mighty knife fighter, not after the maker.) When Von Tempsky enlisted his own company of Forest Rangers towards the end of 1863, after the first corps had been disbanded, he armed his men with bowie knives, in addition to their carbines and revolvers. He took his well-tried bowie knife—which he had used often enough in Central America and Mexico—to a blacksmith in Auckland, and said: 'I hear you are a good man with iron and steel. Can you make me fifty knives like this one?' and he pulled out his long sticker from its battered leather sheath. The smith said he would try, at any rate, and he succeeded in turning out an article that pleased even the experienced frontier fighter.
A veteran of the Rangers showed me the much-page 130worn knife which he had worn in his bush-campaigning thirty years before. 'That's one of old Von's,' he said. 'The workmanship was a trifle rough, but the steel was good. It was tempered well.' That was Von Tempsky's substitute for the bayonet, which the Forest Rangers did not carry. Major Jackson, who commanded No. I Company of Rangers, with the Englishman's conservatism, did not believe in the knife as a weapon; but Von Tempsky knew its fighting value at close quarters.
The smithy was a place of community gossip. That was where the news of the township obtained circulation quite as much as in the store down the road. It all depended on the temperament of the smith. Dour Sandy McRae might not welcome interruptions; Jock Anderson was always in the humour for a talk and a joke as he beat the hot iron. On a cold, wet day, though one might have no business at the smithy, it was pleasant to look in there for the warmth of the place and watch the smith at work with the admiration of the young for the well-skilled man who could shape glowing iron so cleverly and swiftly.
It was in one of the early-day smithies on the Great South Road, at either Papakura or Drury, that a certain stumpy little Maori of Waikato learned the smith's trade and many useful bits of iron craftsmanship, until the tribal call came and he went off to fighting in 1863. His name was Te Retimana. page 131He and one or two other Maoris were taught by a veteran gunner of the East India Company's service how to load, lay, and fire several old ship's guns they had acquired. The gunner had taken to the blanket and the Kingite Maoris made him instruct Retimana and his fellow-gunners before he was allowed to go. The little ex-blacksmith helped to serve the guns in Meremere entrenchments that fired on the colonial gunboats on the Waikato River, and later he was the gunner in Paterangi Pa. He was an all-round useful man; he could straighten a bent gun barrel, repair locks, and do many an odd job of the armourer's craft learned in that wayside shop on the Great South Road.