By Kristen Basham
and Andrew McDonald
Special to The Inter-Mountain
WVUncovered photo by Kristen Basham
Zander Aloi brushes oil on a finished keychain to clean off any debris as well as harden the metal. Video of Aloi working is available online at www.TheInterMountain.com.
Editor's note: This article and photos are part of The Inter-Mountain's partnership with West Virginia Uncovered, a program involving West Virginia University journalism students.
During the enormous storm that charged through the state June 29, causing power outages and property damage, an old tree crashed through the roof of the carriage house directly behind the Beverly Heritage Center.
At the time, the carriage house was in the process of being transformed into a historically accurate blacksmith shop. While the tree narrowly missed the blacksmithing tools, the building was destroyed, which set the project back significantly. The project's goal is to bring blacksmithing back to the community through demonstrations and classes on the traditional techniques of blacksmithing, as well as to show the different tools necessary for the trade and the types of items than can be made.
Historically, a blacksmith was at the center of a small town, considered by some to be one of the most important members of a community. The blacksmith was responsible for making the tools and hardware necessary to keep farms running and industry growing.
The blacksmithing trade began to fade out as tools and other items became mass-produced in factories after the industrial revolution. In the 1970s, blacksmithing experienced a revival, as artists started turning to traditional blacksmithing techniques to create original pieces of art or decor.
Phyllis Baxter, executive director of the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area and a member of the board of directors of the Beverly Heritage Center, has been working closely with the Heritage Center and AmeriCorps volunteers to get the local blacksmithing project up and running since 2011.
"Visitors to a blacksmith shop can see and hear a rich heritage. Hands-on demonstrations are a great way to capture the imagination," Baxter said.
Zander Aloi, a West Virginia native, joined the project as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2011.
Aloi became interested in blacksmithing at a young age and took his first blacksmithing workshop when he was 15. While attending Warren Wilson College near Ashville, N.C., he joined the campus blacksmith shop and learned the necessary techniques to build tools and other items for use at the college.
"When Zander Aloi joined AmeriCorps, he brought with him his blacksmithing knowledge. This provided us an excellent opportunity to show a little more of what life was like in a small town," Baxter said.
Aloi agreed that a blacksmith shop, even in 2012, is an important asset to a community and a great way to get people interested in history.
"A lot of people have ties to blacksmithing in their family. That, combined with the sights and sounds of blacksmithing, really draws people in," he said.
Darryl DeGripp, the director of the Beverly Heritage Center, said he hopes to provide people with experiences similar to the opportunities Aloi had by providing hands-on demonstrations and classes for the public.
"Blacksmithing can be a lot of fun," DeGripp said. "It's interesting to take a hunk of steel and make something out of it. The amount of knowledge that can be passed on through demonstrations and hands-on experience is way beyond just reading about it in a book. You can't put a price tag on that."
Currently, the Beverly Blacksmith Project has been put on hold as the Heritage Center waits for insurance money to come through so repairs can begin on the carriage house. An exhaust system is needed in the building as well, so demonstrations and classes can take place completely inside. Those involved with the project said they hope to be able to work through the winter to have the project up and running by summer.
Even without a building, Aloi has managed to continue blacksmithing in Beverly. His current "workshop" is just his necessary tools: anvil, stove, hammers and chisels, scattered beneath a giant walnut tree behind the Beverly Heritage Center. The destroyed carriage house is nearby.
Aloi currently stores his tools and materials in the old Beverly jail building behind the Heritage Center.
He works on tools for his shop, makes repairs to items damaged in the storm and makes items for friends and family in his spare time. He also participated in Beverly Heritage Days in July by giving demonstrations.
Baxter said she hopes the Heritage Center eventually will have multiple blacksmithing volunteers who will work out of the shop, giving demonstrations and teaching classes.
She added she hopes the techniques and skills used and taught through the Beverly Heritage Project will provide opportunities to not only get people interested in the historical aspect of blacksmithing, but also to let them explore blacksmithing as an art form.
More information about the Beverly Heritage Center is available at www.beverlyheritagecenter.org or 304-637-7424.