Personal Memoirs: The Silent Smithy
by Dave Reid
At one time every town had a smithy, and Winnipeg had dozens of them before the First World War, with 27 of them still active into the 1920s. Then they disappeared in rapid succession but at Bird’s Hill village, about 10 miles north of the city, there still stands a smithy now silent and alone. It sags with weariness and neglect but I remember when it was the vital hub of village life, as the blacksmith attended to the innumerable needs of people for miles around—he was expected to fix anything made out of iron.
But the smithy was more than a “fixing” place, for it was there where passers-by paused to gossip and to exchange opinion on affairs affecting Bird’s Hill. Winnipeg seemed far far away, and I still find it odd at this date to recognize that only 10 miles separated us. But the old smithy at Bird’s Hill still enshrines memories of a life style that has gone, and I hope it can be preserved.
The blacksmith was David Taylor Reid who acquired the site in 1909 and immediately built the smithy with $40 of lumber he obtained on credit from J. D. McArthur, one of Winnipeg’s pioneer millionaires. He borrowed an anvil from Mr. Chudleigh, the postmaster, and he was in business. He was well prepared for the job ahead.
His credentials were framed on the wall, an impressive parchment in copperplate style which recorded the terms of his apprenticeship to a master blacksmith in Yorkshire. It is an amazing document to read today, detailing the covenant whereby the master pledged himself to impart all the secrets of his ancient craft, while young David promised to be a faithful servant, never to be out later than 9:30, never to frequent taverns or playhouses. He received his board and room and was paid one pound sterling annually over five years.
If I were restoring the old smithy, I’d put that certificate back in its place of honor as testimony to the days of craftsmanship which was practised for so long atop Bird’s Hill.
On completing his apprenticeship at 21, David Reid came to Manitoba, working as a blacksmith on the railway bridge at Carroll, and after the bridge was built he entered the employ of W. D. Tranter, blacksmith at Middlechurch. He married his boss’s daughter, and then cast his eyes across the river, setting them on Bird’s Hill as the site for a second smithy. The building he put up for $40 in 1909 is the same one still standing there today.
It was the gravel trade which attracted the young blacksmith. Bird’s Hill was a vast gravel esker and it was being called upon to meet the insatiable appetite of the growing city 10 miles away. Trains were hauling out the gravel the year round but it was horsepower that was used to scrape out the ever-deepening pits.
The horses had to be shod twice a year, for winter and for summer work, and there was an endless variety of other chores to be resolved on the anvil. It was said that the young blacksmith could fix anything, and by 1912 he was fixing automobiles as well. He was meticulous and those who worked for him soon learned never to say, “good enough”. It was a phrase he would not tolerate. “Right is right,” he used to say, adding “but wrong is no man’s right.” For him the song of the anvil was more than skill, it sang the same song he had learned so well as an indentured apprentice—the best that could be done.
Many strange, almost occult, arts were practised in the Bird’s Hill smithy. Villagers would call in just to see what was going on, expressing astonishment at the dispatch with which horses were shod, iron tires affixed to wagon wheels, crank shafts straightened, gear wheels aligned, and sleighs restored with new runners. On some jobs three sledge hammers would be at work on one anvil, with the “Chief” setting the tempo. This never failed to hold the spectators’ attention as each hammer delivered its blow in coordination with the others. Then the anvil would begin to sing its ancient songs.
The ringing of the anvil was not made by the hammer blows which were shaping the metal in transformation. These work blows were dull thuds but the singing started with the light blows on the anvil itself. These maintained the rhythm as the chief smith decided where he would strike next with the others to follow. When the anvil was signing people knew there was an artistic performance underway inside the smithy, and they’d come in to show their appreciation. On Sundays, the anvil was silenced, and if work was necessary it was wrapped in wet sacks, but on other days the song of the anvil was heard throughout Bird’s Hill. It was an important component of the villager’s social life, and at times it was in competition with the other entertainment next door.
The building alongside the smithy was a general store with a dance hall on the second floor, and there the Pritchard orchestra performed on festive occasions. On late night work, the anvil sometimes would join in, thought the blacksmiths themselves were not adverse to joining the celebrations. These were old time dances for the most part, winding up with Home Sweet Home at 3:00 a.m.
Although Bird’s Hill seemed exceedingly remote from Winnipeg, the automobile from 1912 onward accelerated the communications, and the Bird’s Hill smithy closed down once a year to join the Winnipeg blackbirds at their annual picnic in Kildonan Park. There were 27 smithies operating in Winnipeg in 1919 and Dave Reid regularly took his family in his Overland touring car to partake in this frolic.
On rainy days the smithy often attracted passers-by seeking warmth and entertainment. One contest which always stimulated betting was in raising the 15 pound sledge with one hand. In this game the sledge would be propped against the anvil with its handle on the floor. The test was then to lift the hammer, the winter being the one with his hand closest to the end of the handle. Many callers placed a nick on the shaft and periodically tested themselves to see whether they were getting stronger. The contestants were timed as the held the sledge handle as an extension of their arm.
Another smithy game was to move the left hand rapidly back and forth across the anvil while, with the right had, striking the anvil with a five pound hammer. Invariably this contest wound up in cries of anguish.
The automobile age in the 1920s brought many changes in the smithy’s operations as the combustion engine replaced horsepower, but market gardeners still found use for horses until the Depression arrived. Meanwhile, Bird’s Hill found a new source of revenue through the auto from speeding tickets at 15 MPH.
The original police force consisted of one man, his bicycle, two dish pans and a stop watch. Sam Carruthers would peddle his bike out to the gravel road used by the city folks on their way to the gravel pits which had become popular swimming holes. He’d place the dish pans at a set distance part and wait for his victims. With his stop watch he nailed them as they passed the second pan.
The Depression, followed by the complete transformation of power needs, eventually closed the Bird’s Hill smithy down. The blacksmith who built it with $40 worth of lumber is gone, but to me it is a sterling relic of our western heritage. The Silent Smithy of Bird’s Hill should not be lost. It has so many untold stories still to tell.
Page revised: 3 October 2023