The Transformation of the Blacksmith: The Chesebro Blacksmith Shop, 1914-1920
Excerpted from The Chronicle, Volume 54, No. 1, March 2001
by Trevor Jones
In July 1914, the Chesebro Brothers’ blacksmith shop in Saunemin, Illinois, burned down in a spectacular fire that consumed both the shop and two adjacent barns. Undaunted by the disaster, the shop’s owners, Ralph and Elmer Chesebro, soon traveled to Chicago to buy new equipment. By October they had rebuilt “the neatest, handiest, and best equipped shop in the state.” (1) In 1914 the two blacksmiths were optimistic about the future of their business and their profession, but by 1920 they had dissolved their partnership and the shop soon ceased to operate as a full-time business.
For over seventy years, the majority of the shop’s contents remained virtually untouched. Although Ralph Chesebro worked sporadically as a blacksmith until the 1930s, most of the shop’s original account books and tools were left intact. The Chesebro family used the shop for storage until the early 1990s when Ralph’s daughters, Pat and Nina Chesebro, decided to sell the building (Figure 3) and donate its contents to the Early American Museum in Mahomet, Illinois. When museum staff arrived in Saunemin in 1992 to assess the donation, they found an incredibly well preserved collection. Tongs were still hanging by the forge, horseshoes remained in the racks, and bundles of replacement wagon spokes were still wrapped in shipping paper from the early 1900s (Figure 4). The staff carefully mapped the location of more than two thousand artifacts, removed them from the shop, and transported them back to the museum.
After years of cataloging the collection, the Early American Museum is currently in the process of constructing a large-scale exhibit about the Chesebro family and their shop. Opening in 2001, the exhibit will include a reconstruction of the shop’s interior as it looked in 1918 and will interpret the craft of blacksmithing in central Illinois. Although the focus of the exhibit is the role of rural blacksmiths and their methods, the museum is also interested in interpreting the closing of the shop and the decline of blacksmithing as a profession throughout the United States. Surprisingly little has been written about the decline of independent rural shops like the Chesebros’, and the museum staff have been struggling to understand how the blacksmithing business changed in Saunemin and throughout the United States during the early 1900s.
In some respects, the type of work the Chesebros did was very similar to that of previous generations of blacksmiths. As anthropologist and blacksmith Charles Keller has written, the work of rural blacksmiths can be best characterized as “routinely unroutine.” (2) The Chesebro brothers advertised that they did “Horseshoeing, Plow Work, Wagon and Carriage Re-pairing and Painting…Repairing of all kinds [and] New Work built to order.” (3)
The brothers were frequently called upon to make or fix just about anything, and on 14 June 1917, they shoed five horses, fixed two wagons, made a double tree, fixed a fork, and sharpened a plow blade. (4)
Rural blacksmiths had performed these types of tasks for centuries, but the Chesebros used an array of modern tools. When the brothers rebuilt their shop in 1914, they installed a six horsepower gasoline engine that operated a line shaft running the length of the shop. This shaft powered a bandsaw, a lawn mower sharpener, an emery wheel grinder, a disc sharpener, a forge blower, and a trip hammer. The shop also contained two complete forges—one for each brother—and a series of rings for tying horses for shoeing (Figure 5). (5) By 1914, the materials blacksmiths used for repair work had also changed from previous generations. Wrought iron, a fibrous metal with a low carbon content, had been used by smiths for centuries, but by 1900 it had been replaced by mild steel. Harder than wrought iron, but with less carbon than true steel, mild steel was made in industrial-sized batches, and although it was easier to machine with close tolerances, it was harder for blacksmiths to forge and weld. The new material was most useful for repairing mass-produced tools and equipment, and less suitable for making things from scratch. (6)
Unlike earlier generations of blacksmiths, the Chesebro brothers had few opportunities to make en-tire tools, as most of their customers were interested in having store-bought implements repaired. The brothers stocked and utilized an array of ready-made parts, and although blacksmiths are generally thought of as part of a pre-industrial craft economy, the Chesebros were intimately connected with the modern industrial world. They placed several orders a month with their suppliers by telephone, and they could generally receive shipments of bolts, horseshoes, or plow parts in less than three days.
By the standards of the time, the Chesebros’ shop was thoroughly modern and up-to-date. Many other blacksmiths throughout the United States had the same conveniences, but despite these technological advances there was mounting anxiety about the future of the profession. By 1917, blacksmiths were complaining of low prices, a slow but steady decline in business, and were also lamenting the fact that “blacksmiths are getting scarce…only the older men are working at the trade[,] and the younger men are not learning it.” (7)
Blacksmithing magazines such as Blacksmith and Wheelwright provide insights into the state of the profession in the early 1900s. Part advice column, part cheerleader, Blacksmith and Wheelwright’s editors wrote that “although many changes have come to the reader to which this magazine is devoted, nevertheless the blacksmith and his shop are both permanent institutions, which are bound to survive as long as the world stands and civilization continues.” (8) Despite this optimistic prediction, the magazine’s writers acknowledged that many blacksmiths were in trouble, and advocated a two-part solution to the profession’s problems. First, the magazine advised blacksmiths to modernize their business practices. Readers were told to increase their fees, stop issuing credit, develop an understanding of overhead and depreciation, and begin advertising (Figure 6). The magazine’s second solution was for blacksmiths to learn automobile and tractor repair. In 1918 the magazine suggested that “nothing is more logical than that the blacksmith should take up automobile repairing, for he is familiar with iron and steel.” (9) This was hardly a revolutionary suggestion by 1918 as many blacksmiths were already doing a large amount of automobile work, and magazines such as American Black-smith Auto and Tractor Shop catered to this new industry. Many blacksmiths agreed that “the business for all live blacksmiths of today [is] automobile passenger car, and motor truck repairing.” (10)
In Saunemin, the Chesebros also tried to enter the automobile business, but with mixed success. Their account books indicate that they were repairing cars as early as 1908, and by 1917 they knew enough about engines for a local inventor to hire them to make part of a kerosene vaporizer in their shop. (11) The vaporizer was designed to improve gas mileage, and its income-generating potential inspired Ralph Chesebro to improve on the original design and apply for a patent of his own. Believing the vaporizer would boost their revenue, the brothers advertised that their improved model was available for “$20 installed.” (12) Unfortunately, profits from the vaporizer never materialized. Although the Chesebros continued to repair automobiles, it never became a large part of their business, accounting for 2 percent of the shop’s receipts between 1908 and 1911, and only 7 percent between 1917 and 1920. (13)
The Chesebros were always willing to adapt and try new things, and in the late teens they tried to change from a credit to a cash-based business. Blacksmith and Wheelwright advised readers making the switch to “throw your hat in the ring and stick to it. Don’t make exceptions for ‘particular cases’ and don’t for a minute think that you can make the change gradually.” The Chesebros tried to follow this advice, and even placed a large sign (Figure 7) on their shop’s back wall proclaiming “All Work is Cash No Credit,” but it appears that they were ultimately unsuccessful. Their account books show that as much as 50 percent of their work was still done on credit, and in 1918 and 1919 they were forced to place advertisements in the Saunemin newspaper asking “all persons knowing themselves indebted to us . . . to call and settle at once. We need the money.” (15)
At this time blacksmiths throughout the United States also needed money. Prices for blacksmithing work remained flat, despite substantial increases in the price of iron caused by World War I. In 1920, Blacksmith and Wheelwright collected information on blacksmithing rates throughout the nation. According to the magazine, in 1920 $ 1.00 to $1.50 an hour was a good price for repair work, $4.00 was an acceptable standard price for putting on four new horseshoes, and 65¢ to 95¢ was a reasonable charge for plow sharpening. Although the Chesebros had trouble collecting cash for their work, their account books do indicate that they charged close to the national average. Between 1917 and 1920 the brothers charged $1.00 to $1.50 per hour for repair work, $2.50 to $3.00 for four new horseshoes, and from 60¢ to 90¢per plow for sharpening. (16)
The Chesebros followed all of Blacksmith and Wheelwright’s recommendations for a successful shop. They had modem equipment, knew about automobiles, charged fair prices, and attempted not to extend credit. These practices, however, only generated a modest profit. According to the brothers’ 1918 tax return, the shop had a total income of $4,787, gross sales of $2,393, and a net profit of $1,602. In 1919 the Chesebros’ tax return only lists gross sales, but the total of $3,329 was an increase of almost 30 percent over 1918. (17) Subtract-ing the shop’s expenses for the year, the Chesebros’ 1919 profit was a respectable $2,045.
These figures are somewhat misleading, however, as the proceeds had to be split between Ralph and Elmer, leaving each man with only $800 in 1918 and $1,022 in 1919. In comparison with the national average, the Chesebros’ income suffered. In 1918, each brother made $143 below the average, and they were $120 below average in 1919. (18) The brothers had plenty of work to do, and may have had enough to live on, but the shop certainly was not making them rich.
The years 1919–1920 were tumultuous times in the United States. Rural incomes had risen dramatically throughout World War I, but crashed by 1920. During the boom years farmers had money to spend at the Chesebros’ shop, but after 1919 agricultural prices dropped and unemployment rose dramatically. (19) By 1920 the population of Saunemin and other rural townships in Livingston county was decreasing as workers sought new opportunities in urban areas like the county seat of Pontiac. (20) By early 1919, Elmer Chesebro was also looking for other work. He first found a job as a traveling salesman for the E. D. Kimball Company, a supplier of automobile and wagon parts. (21) Elmer briefly continued to live in Saunemin and work in the shop, but by the winter of 1920 he had found new employment as a salesman for the Nelsen Concrete Culvert Company in Pontiac. Elmer’s new position sealed the end of the partnership. In February the brothers placed a notice in the paper stating that “the firm known as Chesebro Bros, conducting a general blacksmithing business in Saunemin, has been dissolved.” (22)
It is unclear exactly what caused Elmer to leave the shop, but it is possible that his reasons were partly personal. Elmer divorced his wife during this period, and his new job allowed him to escape local disapproval and move out of Saunemin. (23) A few years later Elmer married Ada Butzer, a wealthy Pontiac resident whose family owned a gravel pit which Elmer managed for the family. In Saunemin, Ralph Chesebro briefly ran the shop on his own, but gradually spent less time there and began repairing equipment for Elmer at the gravel pit. Ralph eventually also found a job with the Nelsen Concrete Culvert Company, and he rarely spent time in the shop after 1923. (24)
The Chesebro brothers operated a modern blacksmith shop, generated a modest income, and provided a valuable service to their community. When the shop closed in 1920, there was still a demand for their skills, but there were also greater professional opportunities elsewhere. Blacksmiths throughout the United States gradually moved into other professions, and between 1910 and 1930 the number of blacksmiths in the United States decreased by almost 50 percent. (25) Former black-miths continued to use many of the same skills, but they now called themselves mechanics, or worked in large factories, and not in small shops. Blacksmith and Wheelwright’s 1918 prophecy that “the blacksmith and his shop are both permanent institutions” was only half right. (26) The need for the type of skills blacksmiths possessed never vanished, but independent shops like the Chesebros did.
1. Saunemin Headlight, Saunemin, Illinois, 15 October 1914.
2. Charles M. Keller, “Routinely Unroutine: The Village Blacksmith’s Trade,” Technical Insert No. 106, Illinois Heritage Association, July 2000.
3. Chesebro Archives, Folder No. 8, Early American Museum Collection.
4. Chesebro Account Book No. 24, 14 June 1917, Early American Museum Collection.
5. The Saunemin Headlight, 15 October 1914.
6. J. M. Drew, Farm Blacksmithing: Practical Hint for Handy-Men, (Webb Publishing Company, 1901; reprint, New York, N.Y.: The Lyons Press, 2000), pp. 14-15.
7. American Blacksmith Auto and Tractor Shop, February 1920, p. 131.
8. Blacksmith and Wheelwright, March 1920, p. 14.
9. Blacksmith and Wheelwright, May 1918, p. 140.
10. American Blacksmith Auto and Tractor Shop, “Another Blacksmith Expands His Business,” January 1920, p. 94.
11. Saunemin Headlight, 8 February 1917.
12. Saunemin Headlight, 24 May 1917.
13. Chesebro Account Book No. 2, and Chesebro Account Book No. 1. The figures are based on a te10 percent sample of randomly selected pages from each account book.
14. Blacksmith and Wheelwright, May, 1920, p. 14.
15. Saunemin Headlightt, 9 September 1918.
16. Chesebro Account Book No. 1, Early American Museum Collection.
17. Chesebro Archives, Folder No. 8, Early American Mu-seum Collection.
18. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part I (Washington, D.C. Bureau of the Census, 1975), p. 165. The national average income was $944 in 1918, $1,142 in 1919, and $1342 in 1920.
19. Historical Statistics of the United States, p. 126.
20. United States Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920 (Washington, D.C.: 1923), Volume 1: 102, 399. Pontiac’s population increased from 7,073 in 1910 to 7,926 in 1920. Saunemin township’s population decreased from 1,154 to 1,046. The population of Livingston County as a whole declined 3.4 percent.
21. Saunemin Headlight, 8 May 1919.
22. Saunemin Headlight, 26 February 1920.
23. Nina and Patricia Chesebro, interview by Charles Keller and Carolee Berg, 21 September 1991, Early American Museum Collection.
24. Chesebro Account Book No. 32. Ralph continued to do sporadic blacksmithing work in the shop into the 1930s.
25. Historical Statistics of the United States, p. 142.
26. Blacksmith and Wheelwright, March 1920, p. 14.
Trevor Jones is the project coordinator for the Illinois Digitaization Institute and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was formerly curator of History at the Early American Museum inMahomet, Illinois. He would like to thank Dr. Charles Keller, collections manager, Early American Museum, for his assistance in preparing this article.
All images except Figure 6, courtesy of the Early American Museum. Figure 6 courtesy of the University of Illinois library.