Chapter 1: Life in Fort Des Moines
Chapter 1: Life in Fort Des Moines
It was still dark and cold when Pa shook me awake. In the loft, even with the warmth of the brick chimney in the middle of the room, the cold of the blowing wind outside seeped through the log walls of the cabin, and made the outer edges of the blankets stiff and crackling with frost. Pa’s hand on my shoulder in the dark meant that today, I was able to go with Pa to the blacksmith shop instead of to the one room schoolhouse as I did most days. As I silently followed him down the stairs, and we quietly dressed in front of the banked embers in the fireplace, there wasn’t much place for words.
Ma came out of the back room and silently stirred up the banked fire and Pa added a couple logs. Before we were fully dressed, the smells of coffee and biscuits were filling the room. Nancy came out of her room and wordlessly grabbed a skillet and put on some bacon. Soon its sizzle and smell added to the atmosphere. One by one, the boys came downstairs until all five of us boys were sitting around the big wooden table on the benches with Pa while Ma and Nancy dished up plates and set them before us. Only Pa and I were dressed to go out. With a day off school, the other boys would be helping Ma with some of the chores around the house, at least in the morning hours. If they were lucky, they’d get some time to sled or snowball fight in the afternoon with the other town boys. After the last plates were set in place, Ma and Nancy sat down and Pa led us in prayer. Then we all dug into our breakfast.
“Snow is driftin Lizzie, and the wind was howlin last night when I checked on the horses. Looks like this’ll be a humdinger.” Pa said, his mouth full of biscuits.
“Felt some of that wind through the walls,” Ma said, grumpy, “woke me up half a dozen times last night.”
“Set James and John to caulking it back up” Pa replied, “I’ll check their work when we get home tonight.” He stood up and I rose to join him. We wrapped scarves around our heads, pulled up coat collars, put on hats, and squeezed through the door, opening it as little as possible to keep in what heat there was in the house. We trudged, leaning into the wind as we walked through the blowing storm to the blacksmith shop.
When we got there, Smithy already had the fire going in the big forge. The forge was situated in the middle of the large room, a large brick rectangle about waist high. On one end was the huge chimney and on the other was the great bellows on a swivel so the air to intensify the heat could reach anywhere in the fire pit. On one wall behind the smithy, was the wall of tools. Along the chimney wall on that side was a scrap pile of metal to be used for other projects. Behind the bellows were completed work, waiting for the person who ordered them to come pick them up. Across from the smithy was a woodpile, and a pile of metal set aside for jobs he had not yet started.
Smithy had not yet started working, but was arranging his tools needed for the first job of the morning. He pointed wordlessly to the heavy anvil on the other side of the fire. “Widow Johnson needs sled runners, then Mr. Lowell needs a new axe head.”
Pa joined Smithy at the wall gathering the tools he would need for the first couple of jobs. Without being told, I knew my first task was to build up the fire. I removed my hat and scarf, but kept my coat on. The shop was still too cold to remove it. I pumped the bellows a few times to fan the flames, then one by one laid logs on the fire. Pump, add wood, pump again, soon I was lost in the rhythm of my work. The hammering of Smithy and Pa added their own rhythms to the harmony of the room, and we were all at work.
Pa was an apprentice, unusual for a man in his forties, but he came to blacksmithing late in life. He had been a farmer most of his life, since the days when he helped his Pa farm hogs and corn in Indiana. He’d had nothing but bad luck with farming since adulthood, though. After years of grief, Pa decided he’d had enough farming. He sold all the stock we could salvage and we went into town. He was determined to buy the supplies to head back to Indiana, where his parents and brothers still lived, to try and start over again. When he went to the blacksmith shop to get tools, the overwhelmed blacksmith told him it would take three weeks for his order. Sensing an opportunity, Pa convinced the man to take him on as an apprentice, even though he was older. The desperation of Smithy and the persistence of Pa led to the unusual apprenticing relationship. Pa had been working for him the last year and a half. He was a fast learner and already had the skill to own his own shop, but he was contracted for two years and Pa was a man of his word. With his extra help, the Blacksmith had not only kept up with orders, but expanded the shop. When Pa left, it would take two or three young apprentices to take his place. I hoped to be one of them.
On this cold, windy day, the fire felt good. A blacksmith forge was much bigger than the small fire in the pot-bellied stove at school or even the bigger fire at home. Pa was working on an axe head for Mr. Lowell and Smithy was working on a wagon wheel. My work was mostly keeping the fire hot, but every so often, I had to go out into the frigid windy day to get an armload of snow for the quenching barrels. Pa had the big anvil on his side where he would shape the axe head, using a big heavy hammer to flatten the blade end evenly. Once he had the basic shape, he’d use smaller hammers and special smaller anvils to even out the blade width and create the correct curve. Barrels of water and oil stood beside him to temper and harden the steel once he had it right. After it was tempered, he would sharpen it, pumping the whetstone with a foot pump while he got the edge even and sharp. Smithy had the other big anvil, but just now, he used a small hammer and rounded anvil to tap his long piece of iron into an even thin long piece, bent at just the right angles to go on the outside of the wheel. When he had it the right size and shape, he would temper it, then attach the metal rim to the wooden wheel with dowels. The whole thing had to be even and smooth all the way around for the wagon to ride correctly and it was a very challenging job.
About noon, we stopped. I banked the fire carefully, hoping to keep the embers going but bury them enough so that a stray spark did not burn the shop. When I was younger, Pa or Smithy would check the fire after me to make sure it was done right. I was proud that today, they both hung up their leather aprons, loosely put on their coats and scarves and walked across the yard to the Smith’s house. I shivered as they opened then closed the door, but the heat returned as soon as the room was shut again. Once the fire was properly banked, I too put on my layers to walk across the yard.
Lunch was served by Bessie, the Smith’s wife. She was as silent as her husband, filling heaping plates for the three of us, then sitting down with her own plate. Their children were all grown and she usually spent the day alone in her house, working hard in her own right. Smith’s house was the only house in town I had been to without kids in it and I was always extra quiet there. After the meal, Pa and Smith filled their pipes while Bessie took away the dishes. I bundled up to go back over and build back the fire.
It was nearly 6 o’clock and completely dark when our day was done. I wondered when Pa would say I was old enough to quit school and go to the forge full time, but I didn’t say anything. He would let me know. The storm had grown worse. Drifts were all over the place, and the blowing snow made it hard to see where we were going. Pa and I walked along the edge of the street, under eaves when we were able. It didn’t keep us warm, but it helped reduce some of the wind. When we got home, we went first to the barn, where we fed the horses and broke the ice in their water troughs. They would freeze over again soon enough, but for an hour or so, they could drink if they needed it. After that, we returned to the house and the smell of beef stew. As I hung up my coat, scarf and hat, I heard Allen and Warren bickering in Nancy’s room. That meant the storm was bad, they had been cooped up all day and were getting antsy. As Ma and Nancy set out the big wooden bowls of stew and hunks of bread, we all gathered around the table and took our seats. After Pa prayed, we dug in.
“James did a right good job caulking that wall,” Pa said glancing at him. “He’s got the makings of a carpenter if he wants it.” James was glowing, praise from Pa was kind of rare.
“John spent most of the day in the barn,” Ma said, “The wind ripped shingles off that back corner again. It was cold out there and I kept checking on him, but he got the whole thing repaired before lunch.”
“Looked good out there, that barn was tight when we fed the horses.” Pa said with another glance. “Lookin like another day off school, this storm ain’t done blowin yet,” he continued. “John, you’ll go with me tomorrow.” He looked at me to see if I’d complain, but I knew it was John’s turn.
I turned to Ma and asked “What you need me to work on tomorrow, Ma?” Pa turned back to his food with a smile.
“Tomorrow’s baking day,” Ma said, “you’ll need to be cutting enough wood to get us through it all. Then you might need to help Nancy and the young uns replace the bed tickin”
After dinner, Pa lit his pipe and we all sat around the fire. Once Ma was done with the dishes, she sat at her old piano and played hymns for us. Allen and Warren played quietly on the floor in front of the fire, Nancy sewed, and the rest of us listened to the music and stared into the fire.
Finally, Pa stood up and said “John, you and Will check the horses before bed” and went back to his room. James banked the fire and Nancy and Ma took the younger boys upstairs to bed. John and I bundled up and trudged out into the blowing snow. The barn was cold but dry, and we broke ice in all the troughs and gave the horses a little extra hay for the cold. By the time we got into the house, it was dark and silent. We hung up our coats and silent as we could, went up the ladder into the loft to change for bed. It had been a good day, and a long day I thought as I drifted off to sleep.