Jim Jenkins, 63, hammers iron into a leaf during Southeastern Louisiana University's 75th anniversary celebration.
TICKFAW, La. â€“ When Jim Jenkins' old horse Charlie needed new shoes 50 years ago, it was easy for him to find a blacksmith. Now, nearly a half-century after he first watched the man bang out the shoes, Mr. Jenkins is one of the few practicing blacksmiths in Tangipahoa Parish.
Demonstrating his work for Southeastern Louisiana University's 75th anniversary celebration last month, Mr. Jenkins, 63, of Tickfaw stuck out from the rest of the campus crowd in many ways. Tall, with a deep voice and a long, bushy, smoke-colored beard, he wore a beat-up chocolate-brown fedora with feathers and a necklace clattering with keepsakes from around the world.
Whether delicately chiseling veins into a tiny iron leaf or maintaining the wheels on Mardi Gras floats, Mr. Jenkins displayed the patience and authority that come with the time-honored craft.
Before the Industrial Revolution, every community throughout the South had at least one blacksmith. Large farms and plantations often had their own blacksmiths to maintain farm equipment and horseshoes.
"It was a pretty busy job when you consider that some of the plantations had 75 or so mules and horses they worked on a daily basis," Mr. Jenkins said.
By the turn of the century, factory-produced iron goods rendered blacksmithing nearly extinct, except in rural communities. Even in the 1930s, there were blacksmiths in Hammond, Independence and Tickfaw, Mr. Jenkins said. By the 1960s, the only remaining full-time blacksmiths were in the extreme northern parts of the parish. By Mr. Jenkins' count, he is one of three blacksmiths in the parish.
After tinkering with the craft as a teenager, he started full time in 1984. Working out of a shop at his home, Mr. Jenkins does mostly ornamental work â€“ fences, gates, hinges, knives and the restoration of old buildings. The only agricultural work he does is sharpening bush hog blades. Mr. Jenkins also travels throughout the state to demonstrate his craft at jazz and Acadian festivals and at festivals in Shreveport and Monroe.
With his tools laid out on a battered wood work table that his son built about 20 years ago, Mr. Jenkins begins his work by cranking a device called a blower, which is hooked up to a wheelbarrow full of coals. The blower shoots air through the burning coals to heat a piece of iron that he can shape into just about anything.
"Everything is about manipulation," he said, pulling the glowing iron from the coals. "And I manipulate iron."
After setting the iron on an anvil, he donned a pair of everyday reading glasses, grabbed a hammer, raised his hefty arms and slammed into the iron. In 16 years of doing this full time, Mr. Jenkins said, he hasn't suffered anything more serious than minor burns and scrapes.
Once he had transformed the iron into the shape of a leaf, he used a chisel to gently etch veins into the surface.
With a final blow from the hammer, Mr. Jenkins separated the leaf from the rest of the iron.
Although there are not many blacksmiths around today, Mr. Jenkins said it's still a good job for anyone interested. Perhaps because many people appreciate the skill and patience involved, they are willing to pay more for something they know is handcrafted.
"There's a good future in blacksmithing," Mr. Jenkins said. "It has almost limitless possibilities."
Distributed by The Associated Press