Virtual Exhibit

Lacombe Blacksmith Shop

Through the Years

“A blacksmith shop without a blacksmith is missing its soul.”

Henrietta Verwey, interview with Lacombe & District Historical Society

The Blacksmith Shop Museum is unique among actively interpreted heritage buildings. The tin clad building is somewhat unassuming. It sits alone on its section of the street with parking lots on either side. But looking at the shop immediately gives the sense that you are looking into the past: its high faux façade, sliding barn style doors, and wooden multi-paned windows are all out of place in a modern build. Being a well-maintained heritage building is not what makes this shop unique though. It is the place on which the building sits that makes it unique. Since being constructed in 1902, the Blacksmith Shop Museum has resided on the same lot on Glass Street (49 Street). The shop is the oldest standing blacksmith shop in the province that sits in its original location. To visit the Blacksmith Shop Museum you must trace the steps of customers bringing horses to be shod in the early 1900’s, those bringing plough shears to be sharpened in the 1920’s, and those coming to take advantage of the shop’s welder in the 1960’s.

In this virtual exhibit you will find information on the history of the Blacksmith Shop Museum, blacksmithing and its importance in Lacombe, and  interviews with our resident blacksmiths: Bill Marquardt, and Henrietta Verwey.

Throughout the Years…

  • Watson Blacksmith Shop, exterior. LDHS Archival Image 2014.37.2

  • Lacombe Blacksmith Shop, 1993. Archival Image LDHS 2017.21.55

  • Lacombe Blacksmith Shop, 1992. Archival Image LDHS 1992.16.54

  • Lacombe Blacksmith Shop Museum, 2020. Image by Lacombe Museum

Role of the Blacksmith

Humans have been participating in metal working of some capacity for thousands of years. We can generally place the early beginnings of blacksmithing in the iron age of any given region. Blacksmithing consists of heating iron, or steel, in a heat source such as a forge, until the metal is soft enough to manipulate into a new shape. This skill gave humans the ability to create many items that we take for granted today. Before industrialization blacksmiths would have made most metal items, from locks, to nails, to metal weaponry. The importance of blacksmiths continued for centuries and was essential to early European settlement in North America.

As the role of the blacksmith developed over the 19th century, they began to combine a number of other ironworking crafts into one trade. These multi-skilled crafts people were crucial to the developing towns in western Canada as they were necessary for the creation and maintenance of almost all metal goods. Perhaps most importantly for early settlers, blacksmiths maintained early 20th century agricultural equipment. Blacksmiths would provide general maintenance for the implements, very often through the sharpening of plough shears, and would do larger repair jobs as required.

Without blacksmiths, the early days of European settlement would have been much different. Those early agricultural implements were driven with horses. Not only did the blacksmiths maintain the implements, but to a certain extent they maintained the horses too. Working horses required shoes to stay healthy and blacksmiths would make, then install horseshoes. Some were known to provide minor veterinary care as well. Another important service to early settlers that visitors can see evidence of in the Blacksmith Shop Museum today is the creation of branding irons. Blacksmiths would shape the appropriate symbols into the irons so that a livestock owner could brand an identifying mark onto their cattle.

Blacksmith shops often became a community gathering place, particularly for men. It was common in the early 20th century to have multiple blacksmiths per village, a trend that was evident in Lacombe. In the early Lacombe, there were approximately 7-8 blacksmith shops at any given time to accommodate the many metal needs found in a bustling community.

Mechanized tools began working their way into the trade in the mid-19th century. Many examples of these evolving tools can be seen in the Blacksmith Shop Museum. The large triphammers, and drive shaft operated grinder are great examples of innovations in technology that took blacksmithing from man power to (engine generated) horse power.

As mentioned previously, Lacombe had up to 8 blacksmith shops operating at a given time. One type of business having such a high prevalence, especially in a village of a few hundred people, impresses the extreme importance of blacksmiths to life at the time. The shops all appear to have been in close proximity to one another with all of the recorded shops having been within a 5-minute walk from the Blacksmith Shop Museum.

The number of shops, and proximity of the shops, can create an interesting tangle in the history of Lacombe when we begin to determine just how many blacksmith shops operated at a given time, who the blacksmiths were, and where the blacksmiths worked.  Many blacksmiths ended up working at multiple shops over their careers, so many of the known blacksmiths in Lacombe worked in the Blacksmith Shop Museum at one point in time. The following section briefly highlights some of the most prominent blacksmiths in Lacombe. Most blacksmiths that we know about also worked at John Fincham’s shop on Nanton Street in the course of their career.

  • From the “Blacksmith’s Manual Illustrated”. The illustration shows the steps of making a hoop.

  • From “Farm Blacksmithing” (1921). These important blacksmithing tools can be seen on display in the Blacksmith Sop Museum.

  • From “Farm Blacksmithing” (1901). Making a ring without welding.

  • From “Practical Blacksmithing”. Providing excellent shoeing services was often a source of pride.

  • From “Practical Blacksmithing”.

Building Societies with Hammer and Anvil

Blacksmiths of Early Lacombe

Imagine early Lacombe: the muddy streets full of wagon wheel ruts, the sounds and smells of horses, wooden boardwalks that held pedestrians above the mud, many of the brick buildings we use to this day, and also wooden ones that succumbed to the many fires of early Lacombe. Imagine even earlier. Imagine a small valley with lakes and wetlands, poplar groves, the Calgary and Edmonton trail cutting through the valley, the very first European settlers expressing an interest in the area with homesteads, the Barnett stopping house, and a railway being surveyed. Blacksmiths were instrumental in physically building up early settlements; they were necessary in turning Lacombe into a thriving prairie town from a network of small lakes and ponds. Many of our blacksmiths did not just make nails or sharpen plough shears, they also were active members of our early community. They helped to build society from the dirt up. Many of the blacksmiths in the following list had other hobbies, or jobs, that contributed to early prairie life. They were musicians, farmers, constables, and fire fighters. As more research is conducted in to the earliest days of Lacombe’s community we find that some of our blacksmiths may have been related through marriage, and some are related to prominent Lacombe pioneers. It may be easy to discount the impact of a hammer and anvil housed in a simple wooden building, but we owe much to the hands that swung those hammers.

The button in the top left of the map window, to the left of “Blacksmith Shops of Lacombe” will open a list of locations that are available to explore. Clicking on a shop in the list will highlight its location on the map. You may need to zoom in on Lacombe with the buttons on the map, or your mouse, before you explore.

John Fincham opens the first recorded blacksmith shop in Lacombe on Nanton Street in 1896. This shop was in use until the 1930’s.

Before 1900 blacksmith, John Beatty, also opens a shop.

In 1901 Hugo Gottschlich opens a shop on Railway Street that appears to have been in use until the mid-1940’s. Hugo was a talented musician and was known for his musical skill just as much as his blacksmithing. This shop was owned for many years by Fred Dobirstein.

At the end of the street that the Blacksmith Shop Museum is on, Tom Norish opens a shop in 1903. He closes it a few years later in 1907.

Claude Rowe owns the Nanton Street shop, and a shop on Railway Street, during the course of his careers as a Lacombe blacksmith.

Blacksmith, Fred Taylor, beings working in Lacombe blacksmith shops in 1903. He works in the Blacksmith Shop Museum, and owns at least one other Lacombe blacksmith shop before buying John Fincham’s shop on Nanton Street. He operates the shop until the mid-1930’s. Fred was fire chief for 4 years after having been a member of the volunteer fire brigade and working as “Town Constable”.

The Frizzell’s: Jim, Jim Guy, William, and Lester, all work in blacksmith shops in Lacombe at different times. Jim may have run a blacksmith shop across the street from the Blacksmith Shop Museum. He later works in the Blacksmith Shop Museum, and then in John Fincham’s Nanton Street shop.

Tony Akey begins working as a blacksmith in Lacombe in 1940, then owns two of Lacombe’s shops in the early to mid-1940’s.

A Timeline of the Blacksmith Shop Museum

Where It All Began

Constructing a Legacy

In early 1902, A. Weddle built what is now the Blacksmith Shop Museum on Glass Street (49 Street). The 1903 tax records state the building was valued at $350, which would be approximately $8,000 in 2021. Blacksmith shops did not need to be structurally complex or aesthetically pleasing. An open workspace where equipment such as forges, anvils, and other devices can be set up works perfectly well. Weddle’s shop had room to shoe horses, and tradition has it this was done along the north wall of the building.

Weddle owned this shop for a short time before selling it to the Watson Brothers, Alfred Dickie and Stanley Sandford. According to the census Weddle and his family appears to have moved to the Vancouver area where Weddle continued to blacksmith. The Watson Brothers owned the shop until 1907 and had a variety of smiths from the area visit or work in their shop including Fred Taylor, another notable smith, in 1906. John McNab was the third owner of the shop and worked independently for nineteen years before eventually forming a partnership with John Reeves, the fourth owner, in 1926. Reeves would later buy out McNab and operate it alone until 1939. The Selvais Family would be the last owners of the shop as a commercial business, running it from 1939 until 1987 in some capacity.

Watson Bros, The Second Owners of the Shop

The Watson Brothers, Alfred Dickie and Stanley Sandford, were the second owners of the Blacksmith Shop. Alfred had apprenticed as a blacksmith in Nova Scotia, before moving his family to Lacombe where he and his brother owned the shop from 1904 to 1907.

Alfred’s career as a blacksmith allows him to cross paths with other notable blacksmiths in the community. After selling the Blacksmith Shop Museum  Alfred continued to blacksmith at John Fincham’s shop, on Nanton Street (50 Street). At this shop he enters a partnership with the Frizzell’s: Jim and Guy. When he owned the Glass Street shop with his brother blacksmith, Fred Taylor, is reported to have worked there. Fred will go on to own the Nanton Street shop a few years after Alfred Watson had owned it.

By 1916 Alfred Watson stops blacksmithing in Lacombe and takes up farming. The museum is lucky enough to have three original pieces from the Watson brothers on display in the Blacksmith Shop Museum: their “Watson Bros” sign which can be seen on the south wall of the shop, an anvil, and small forge. The anvil is a farmer’s style anvil, featuring a “hump” on the horn of the anvil to allow one to put on the lip of a horseshoe. The forge is a traditional coal burning forge featuring a small hand crank blower motor.

John McNab

John McNab purchased the Glass Street blacksmith shop from the Watson brothers in 1907. According to the 1916 census he moved to Canada from Scotland the same year that he took over the shop. Presumably he learned the trade in Scotland, but little is known about McNab as a blacksmith. Claude Rowe, another blacksmith in the community, begins working with McNab in 1917. Rowe later purchases one of the other shops that was in close proximity to the Blacksmith Shop Museum.

Adverstisement for John McNab’s blacksmithing services from the Western Globe. Accessed via Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

John Reeves

In 1926 John McNab forms a partnership with John Reeves, by 1928 Reeves is listed as the sole owner of the shop. Again, unfortunately little is known of Reeves as a blacksmith, but one year after taking over the shop the Western Globe reports that he won in the category of “set shoes, best agricultural team” at the 1929 Lacombe Fair.

The Selvais Family

Saviors of the Shop

Jules Selvais purchased the shop in 1939 after moving to Lacombe from Eckville. In the early 1950s his son, Roger, began to work along side his father in the shop. They owned the shop from 1939 until 1993, and operated a business in it until 1987. Jules had apprenticed in Belgium before moving to Canada in the 1920s. He first rented the shop from John Reeves before becoming the owner three years later.

When Jules first began working in the shop the north wall was reserved for horseshoeing, and there was no welder in the shop. As time moved forward and demand changed, so did the shop. Under the ownership of the Selvais duo steps were taken to modernize the shop and its services. Once Roger began working at the shop welding started to become a larger part of the services offered. During the course of the 1950’s the blacksmithing services of the shop declined; they went from repairing wagons and sleighs, to repairing automobiles. In 1953 an addition was added to the back (the west end) of the building so that they could accommodate vehicle repairs. Throughout their ownership they continued to add tools to the shop that increased their capacity to meet the more modern demands of a blacksmith shop such as a second trip hammer, and a drill press. Changing with the times allowed this shop to stay in business into the 1980s. The other shops in Lacombe seem to have ceased, or transformed, their operations quite some time before the Selvais shop.

Roger and his son, Ronald, sold the shop to the Lacombe and District Historical Society in 1993. It was then turned into a museum. It is in large part due to the Selvais having owned the shop continually for such a length of time that is was kept in such excellent condition.

The Trip Hammers

The Blacksmith Shop Museum boasts two impressive trip hammers that were used by blacksmiths in Lacombe. The larger black one is thought to be original to the building and would have been used for projects such as plow shear sharpening.

The smaller red trip hammer was originally in the Railway Street shop and was sold to the Selvais’ by Fred Dobirstein. It was also used for sharpening plow shears, but could be used to get a much finer edge on the shear because the smaller size allowed for finer work.

Fred Dobirstein

“Will mend anything from a needle to a broken heart”

Fred Dobirstein is an immensely interesting character in the history of Lacombe. Of all the former blacksmiths in our community, we know the most about Fred. Not necessarily about him as a blacksmith, but as a fixture of the community. In Fred’s relatively short life, and relatively short amount of time living in Lacombe, he was front page news many times.

Fred did not blacksmith in the Blacksmith Shop Museum, but as mentioned previously he sold one of the trip hammers from his shop to the museum shop, so some of Fred’s legacy live on in a tangible manner in the museum.  A note in our files says that the quotation featured in the sub-heading was on a sign at Fred’s blacksmith shop, perhaps highlighting Fred’s sense of humor and good nature. At the Lacombe Museum we have a bit of a soft spot for Fred. The more we learn about him, the more amazed we are at how resilient he seemed to be.

In this section you are invited to explore Fred’s life via headlines in the Western, and Lacombe, Globes. Some of these news stories may not be suitable for all readers as they include a potential attack by the Ku Klux Klan, and bodily injury.

Some of the facts about Fred’s life are contradictory, but somethings we can know for certain. Fred blacksmithed in both Saskatchewan, and Alberta. He lived in numerous communities in Alberta before settling in Lacombe. In Lacombe he raised a family and participated in community events. When the second world war broke out Fred put his skills to use for the allies and went overseas as a Royal Canadian Engineer. This decision would ultimately end his blacksmithing career as he lost part of one of his arms while abroad. When Fred returned from war he started to work for the town.

Blacksmithing Becomes a Trade of the Past

As noted previously, Lacombe was home to as many as 8 blacksmith shops at one time. This number expresses the extreme importance of blacksmiths during the settlement period. Unfortunately, blacksmithing experienced a decline over a couple of decades before becoming a thing of the past. Bill Marquardt reports a beginning of the decline of blacksmiths in Lacombe in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Customers just did not have the financial means to seek out the services of their local blacksmiths at the time, and instead sought alternatives in order to maintain their agricultural equipment.

“And then the dirty thirties come along, and of course then that there kind of took a lot of them out of business…

Bill also reports that due to the financial hardships of the 1930s people began to get creative when exploring the means that they had available to them for accessing services from businesses. Charlie Lukat bought an anvil out of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue so that he could conduct his own blacksmithing repairs at his farm. Word spread and he soon provided repair services to his neighbours. Money was extremely tight during the Great Depression, but his neighbours could pay him with goods from their farms. When Charlie was paid with items like butter, or beef, he would then take the goods to town and sell them to people that had money like the local lawyers and doctors.

In general, blacksmithing as a trade disappeared by the 1950s. The advent of new technology and modern machinery meant the demand for a blacksmith’s service steadily decreased. Many of their services were replaced by other trades. Welders, and their ability to join metals without the use of a forge, took on many of the tasks formerly done by a blacksmith. The introduction of automobiles and gas-powered agricultural machinery, and then the continuous improvements to these technologies, required mechanics to maintain them. Horse based serices were taken on by veterinarians or farriers that could easily travel with the required equipment needed to complete a job.

While many early buildings in Lacombe were destroyed by fires, none of the blacksmith shops that were available in the community are currently known to have burned down. Blacksmiths handled fire on a daily basis, and perhaps is it this expertise that kept their buildings out of harms way. The other blacksmith shops are believed to have been torn down, fallen into disrepair, or were converted into welding or mechanics shops as blacksmithing gradually became less of a prevalent trade.

Charlie Lukat’s Anvil

During the 1930s, many farmers could not afford to have their plow shears sharpened by the blacksmiths in town, so they turned to other options. Charlie Lukat bought this anvil from Sears Roebuck with the goal of sharpening his own shears, but soon he was sharpening other people’s shears in return for whatever farmers could pay him. Without a trip hammer, this was a long process. Unlike many other anvils in the Blacksmith Shop Museum, this one has severe wear and chipping on the sides. Being purchased from the Sears-Roebuck catalog it was not manufactured to the same standard as with other blacksmithing suppliers.

Re-lighting the Forge

A new era with the Lacombe and District Historic Society

The Lacombe and District Historical Society, then the Maski-Pitoon Historical Society, began the process of purchasing the blacksmith shop from the Selvais family in 1991. The society spent 2 years raising the funds necessary to purchase the shop and begin renovations in 1993. To bring the building up to code, and to ensure it could continue to stand the tests of time, extensive renovations were undertaken in 1993. The building had structural concerns to address. So, the society got to work.

Pictures were taken and tools were catalogued. The shop had been in business for nearly 90 years, and it came to to the society not as an empty building, but as a shop that was ready for a customer to come through the doors at any moment. This of course was one of the reasons the blacksmith shop was so well suited to being saved as a historical resource. Having been a blacksmith shop for the entirety of it existence with very few changes made to the building, and having been owned by the Selvais family for such a large amount of its life left the shop in remarkable condition. It was already a museum in many ways, having been filled throughout the years will the tools of the blacksmiths that worked at its forge, but this did mean that the shop was full. Members went through each item that was housed in the blacksmith shop and then put it in storage so the important work of addressing the structural integrity of the building could take place. In the photos here we can see that the blacksmith shop was sitting on an old timber frame and needed a foundation. The roof needed to be reinforced, walls needed vapor barrier and insulation, a new roof was installed and old roof was reused to cover the outside walls.

At this time some restoration was also done to return the appearance of the building to an earlier era. Though it seems that the building endured few changes throughout the years the front entrance had been changed at some point and the sliding doors had been lost. The restoration returned the sliding doors.

This early work done by the historical society paid off. The careful care and attention to this restoration ensured that the unique heritage resource that is the Blacksmith Shop Museum will be available to the community well into the future. The shop has attracted a lot of interest over the years from community members that are interested in this trade. From young people curious about what they can make at the forge, to seasoned blacksmiths with years of practice, we would not be where we are right now without their work. Currently, you may see one of our two dedicated volunteer blacksmiths if you visit the shop: Bill Marquardt, or Lady Smith Henrietta Verwey.

In 2012 the Lacombe and District Historical Society received a Heritage Conservation Award for outstanding commitment to the conservation of the Blacksmith Shop Museum.

Why a Blacksmith Shop?

Our volunteer blacksmith, Henrietta Verwey, provided amazing insight in an interview with the Lacombe and District Historical Society as to why the Blacksmith Shop Museum is such a valuable resource, and how it tells a story about the development of our community. Her answer to the question, “What is the significance of the Blacksmith Shop Museum?”, explores ideas that museums are always trying to think about:

  • How do we make important connections to the past?
  • How do we make history exciting?
  • How do we tell a story in an interesting way?

Or to paraphrase Henrietta: how do we move past the paperwork and the dates to show people how we built societies?

Bill the Blacksmith

Bill Marquardt has been a resident of Lacombe his entire life and for many years of his life he has been an important fixture with the Lacombe and District Historical Society and the Blacksmith Shop Museum. Bill has been present every step of the way where the Blacksmith Shop Museum is concerned, and today is the longest serving volunteer for the Lacombe and District Historical Society. When the historical society began to consider purchasing and conserving historical resources in Lacombe Bill took it upon himself to think about how to breathe life into the blacksmith shop. What better way than to take up blacksmithing? So, Bill learned the tools and tricks of the trade. He became “Bill the Blacksmith” and has been a fixture in the Blacksmith Shop Museum for 30 years. During his time with the Lacombe and District Historical Society Bill has entertained many visitors with displays of blacksmithing skills. He has also passed his love for this trade into the next generation as he has taught new volunteers and staff how to operate the shop. Throughout the years Bill’s love for the Blacksmith Shop Museum has been obvious in person, and in the many T.V. and newspaper interviews highlighting the Blacksmith Shop Museum, or his personal commitment. In 2018 Bill was recognized for his amazing dedication as he received the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation’s Heritage Award for Outstanding Achievement.

In this First Person profile by Shaw TV get a feel for the sights and sounds of the Blacksmith Shop Museum as Bill shares his experiences with the historical society.

Still We Forge On

Current Projects at the Blacksmith Shop Museum

Today the Blacksmith Shop Museum is open to the public regularly during the summer months where our dedicated volunteer blacksmiths and summer students take visitors back in time to the beginnings of Lacombe. The Blacksmith Shop Museum is a living history museum where demonstrations of real blacksmithing skills are offered. Volunteers and staff create a variety of items by hand using the tools of a by-gone trade. The shop also hosts blacksmithing workshops for those interested in breathing life into this heritage trade.

In 2019 a conservation and restoration project gave the Blacksmith Shop Museum a much appreciated facelift. Windows were repaired, woodwork was re-painted, and storm windows to match the building were made. This kind of work allows the museum to retain as many of its original features as possible, while hopefully also minimizing any future conservation needs.

In 2021 more work was done to the exterior of the building. These repairs to the roof and siding of course keep the blacksmith shop looking in tip top shape, but will also ensure that the building is protected against the elements, and that the wood underneath has the protection that it needs to maintain its condition. The conservation undergone in both of the projects mentioned help to minimize possible damages to the building and keep the scale of future conservation projects modest.

Read more about these projects in the Field Note Behind the Scenes: Restoring the Blacksmith Shop Museum.

A Blacksmith’s Work is Never Through

Historic buildings require constant care and maintenance to not only ensure that they survive as a resource into the future, but also to improve their capacity to tell a story. This means that the Blacksmith Shop Museum undergoes continual restoration projects. Museum staff stay vigilant in identifying restoration needs as they arise, and constantly try to imagine new ways to interpret the heritage buildings for our visitors. Without our funding partners we simply would not be able to do this.

The triphammers in the shop have been out of service since 2015. As off winter 2021, repairs are being completed on the triphammer drive shaft, as well as the triphammers themselves to allow for demonstrations of the triphammers in the future. Pending receipt of funding the Blacksmith Shop Museum will be a part of a project to increase the Lacombe and District Historical Society’s capacity to engage with the public through a new interpretive space, and improvements for mobility impaired visitors.

Tour the Blacksmith Shop Museum

Explore the shop as it stands today! In this virtual tour you can see the shop at rest without any blacksmiths at work. Pay close attention to the artifacts that are on display. The Watson Brothers forge is to the left when the tour first opens, and their sign is on the wall above the windows. Both triphammers can be seen in the middle of the work area. Be sure to look up and down as you tour the shop. details can be found high and low!

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