"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: The Village Blacksmith

One of the busiest spots in Great Village is the blacksmith’s shop, run by Mayhew T. Fisher (folks call him Mate)(1), from Bass River. Mate came to the Village a couple of years ago, setting up in the shop once run by Oscar Hill, who’d been a farrier here for a number of years. Mate’s shop is near the green, just beside the Bulmer house ─ and the sound of his hammer and anvil can be heard for quite a distance on a still day. Even though automobiles are becoming more common, most everyone still has a wagon, buggy, or carriage and there are still many horses in the village and countryside ─ and all these horses need shoes. And with so many of Great Village's gentlemen into horse racing, Mr. Fisher’s shop is always hopping: the bellows creaking, the coals in the forge white hot and humming, the big barrels of water cooling the iron shoes with a sharp hiss and a burst of steam, and the hammer and anvil clanging their distinctive song.

Mayhew Fisher (right) at the door of his shop

While horseshoes are Mate’s biggest stock in trade, he also makes many other things, especially wheel rims and nails. He uses old mill stones to make the rims and they lie like monuments outside the shop's door.

Mate puts in long days, starting early in the morning. It is not uncommon to see a line of wagons along the road outside the shop. He’s doing such a thriving business these days that he's hired a young fellow, Mr. McBurnie, from Glenholme, to give him a hand. Even his brother, Leo, comes down from Bass River at times to help out.

There is another lad in the village who spends time at Mate’s shop, Eugene Layton, Harry Layton’s son. Eugene has been interested in smithing ever since he was a wee lad, and he has also been spending time at Charles MacLeod's blacksmith shop in Bible Hill. With the race track nearby Mr. MacLeod’s is one of the busiest shops in the district. Eugene is going to apprentice there when he graduates from school next year. When he’s not in school or out at Bible Hill he's at Mate's soaking up everything he can learn.(2)

The Great Village Blacksmith shop when it was owned by Oscar Hill

A blacksmith’s shop is a marvellous place with all the strange tools of the trade: nippers, clippers, cutters, clinchers, calipers, hammers, knives and nails. And the piles of iron bars out of which the horse shoes are fashioned. There are hundreds of types of horseshoes for racers, trotters, jumpers, pacers; for show and work horses; for use on snow and ice. Indeed, each horse gets shoes made especially for it, and when a horse has problems with its feet, therapeutic or corrective shoes are custom made. Depending on how much work or racing a horse does, shoes can last awhile or need regular replacing.

The most dramatic part of the process is the hammering out of the shoe. It is not really brute force which shapes the iron. Indeed, the blacksmith is an artisan, taking the raw iron, alternately heating and hammering it, and creating a shoe just right for each horse. To cool down the fiercely hot metal, big barrels of black water stand nearby. It is said that this water is a cure for freckles and poison ivy because it contains so much iron oxide.

Mate’s shop is also a gathering place in the village. While Mate is efficient and expert, making a horseshoe is not a speedy affair, so the fellows collect at the shop and talk about events of the day or latest war news. Today Mate expects quite a bit of discussion about the election. Mate is also known in the area as a reciter of poems. He comes from an artistic family, which includes a published poet or two. His favourite poet is Tennyson and he knows many of his poems by heart, as well as lots of traditional ballads. Mate has also been known to since a song or two, but he saves that mostly for when he’s by himself, though he knows the folks walking by the shop can hear him anyway. His wife has tried to convince him to participate in one of the many musicales that take place in the village, but he’s too busy, too tired at the end of the day to stand in someone’s parlour or in the church singing.

Arriving just about dawn, Mate busies himself getting the fire going so it will be hot enough for his first customer, C.B. Spencer. One of his Clydesdales has a sore foot and he has a load of stuff to take to Truro later in the day, so he needs his horse taken care of as soon as the coals are hot. As Mate goes about his morning's routine, he notices activity at the Bulmer house. The doctor comes by, then Rev. Francis, and Will is outside getting the horse and wagon harnessed. He knows he’ll be seeing Will and Nimble sometime soon, as Will mentioned a few days ago that the horse needs new shoes.

He feels sad for the Bulmers with their sick daughter. He knows it is a difficult thing. His mother-in-law has been ill for some time and his wife has been going up to Economy regularly to be with her. Illness is never easy, he thinks. He wonders if Gertrude’s little daughter will drop by later today. Ever since they came back to the village the wee child has been visiting his shop regularly. She’s quite a curious little thing and her smile brightens the dark shop. At first she was shy and would only peek in the doorway, but soon she ventured in and seemed to like just to stand and stare at all the activity, though she does so only when the gaggle of lads are not milling about right after school. When he’s not busy he makes her little rings out of horseshoe nails.

They’ve become good friends this past year, and his heart aches most for her, with her mother so unwell and now leaving for goodness knows how long. Later, he thinks, he'll make her a chain of rings with some of the old nails. He pauses at the forge for a moment to think about his wife, who expecting their first child. In time, they will have their own gaggle of little ones and he hopes that their own heath will hold so that they can bring them up.

Mate doesn’t see Will return from Londonderry Station, but when he’s out getting some air in the afternoon he sees the wagon beside the house. And he sees little Elizabeth playing with her dolls and that funny dog of hers under the trees. She doesn’t stop by the shop, though he thinks it would cheer her up if she did.


1. In her iconic story “In the Village,” Elizabeth Bishop calls him Nate.

2. Eugene Layton did indeed go onto become a farrier. After apprenticing with Charles MacLeod he set up shop in Great Village and ran his business for some years. Then Eugene headed for the United States where he ended up in Ithaca, NY, and joined the Veterinary College at Cornell University. For many years he taught the art and science of blacksmithing. He was regarded as the best farrier in the East and offered a rigorous training programme at Cornell, helping to keep the trade of blacksmithing alive and current well into the twentieth century. His expertise was sought by many in the world of horse racing. Through the years he shod a number of famous horses, including Bombs Away, Adois Betty and Bonny Brook Dean. He continued to makes visits back to Great Village for the rest of his life.

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