Playing with Fire | The ancient art of blacksmithing

Tahoe Blacksmith Randy Vogelgesang. | Lisa Michelle

Before I located the blacksmith shop at the Pope Estate, the smell of burning coal and red-hot steel, lead the way. Forge smoke curled and climbed through the treetops as I approached the century-old shop. I heard that familiar hammering ring of iron on anvil over and over ever so carefully until metal is forged into something useful. It brings memories of days that turned into months spent sweating and struggling to learn the basics skills necessary to become a farrier and forge shoes for horses. The burns still grace my forearms as does my deep appreciation for the dedication and skills required to call oneself a blacksmith.

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Blacksmith Randy Vogelgesang has been volunteering at the Pope Estate on Tallac Historic Site in South Lake Tahoe for nine summers and was introduced to the trade by a friend who had been volunteering. Vogelgesang took over the position when his friend retired. Though Vogelgesang has never worked as a farrier, several of the other volunteers at the historic estate have.

Blacksmith Shop
10 a.m.-4 p.m. | Wednesday-Saturday

Tallac Historic Site | South Lake Tahoe

“It’s mostly a young man’s or woman’s job,” he says. “Most eventually move on to specialize in blacksmith work, which is currently experiencing a resurgence for hobbyists.”

Evidence of the first hammering of iron was found in 1350 B.C. in Egypt. It was the Hittites, an ancient group of Indo-Europeans, that are believed to have invented forging, but kept their skills secret until they began migrating to Greece and the Balkans. Early smiths heated iron in wood fires until they discovered that wood made charcoal burn much hotter. The technique was advanced with the use of bellows, which increased airflow allowing the forge fire to burn even hotter — heating hard metal into pliable glowing possibilities.

The blacksmith shop at the Pope Estate. | Lisa Michelle

Hinges, horseshoes and hooks were just a few of the trinkets available for purchase at the blacksmith shop; Vogelgesang chose to create a triangle dinner bell.

“They’re a very popular item — that’s why there are none left,” he says.

Proceeds from each item go to a restoration fund. As he hammered the heated iron, he never failed to stop mid-swing and greet every visitor with a welcoming “Hello,” and an invitation to “Step on up.” Sharing the history of blacksmithing and the Pope Estate is Vogelgesang’s favorite part of his position.

“I feel like I’m helping to preserve this place,” he says — which seems to be working as visitors crowded in to watch the demonstration and ask questions.

A handcrafted dinner bell. | Lisa Michelle

With a gloved hand, Vogelgesang buried a long iron stake deep into burning coals and cranked the lever on the 100-year-old blower. As air was forced up through the forge and into the coals, flames rattled the massive vent hood that hung above. An impressed “Whoa,” was gasped in unison from the crowd. With tongs, the stake was removed and the hot orange section placed against the anvil. He hammered and bent the rod into an L shape. He inspected his work and hammered some more, then put it back into the fire to repeat the process once more.

The twisted dinner bell sizzled then hissed as it cooled and tempered under water. Steam rose. Children and adults glanced at each other with smiles. In no time, Vogelgesang had produced an eight-inch clapper to ring the dinner bell with and if you’ve ever seen a classic Western, you’ve heard the sound: a comforting cacophony that evoked images of dusty cowpokes rushing in hungry from a hard day’s work. The sweet sound carried as Vogelgesang twirled and banged the clapper full-on inside the dangling triangle. A woman rushed up and claimed to have been looking for one of those forever. | (530) 544-7383, tahoeheritage.org