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The village smithy

Richard J. Alley's blacksmith shop, 1890s, Burlington MA. Photo credit: town archives
Richard J. Alley’s blacksmith shop, 1890s. This was at the junction of Bedford Street (going off into the distance on the left) and Center Street (leading right, toward today’s police station and library).


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, August 28, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 010)

The village smithy

The man backed solidly into the horse’s rump, holding one shank of the animal’s hind leg firmly between his knees and, using both hands to hold the rasp, went to work on the hoof. One of Mr. Kerrigan’s horses had thrown a shoe and now Sidney Brown was to repair the damage and fit a new shoe. He was working in his little shop, a small shack in back of his home at the corner of Winn and Sears streets. Here he could mend a chain or put an edge on a point, make hearth dogs for the fireplace or foot scrapers for the front door, create barn door hinges or gate latches. But here he only did odd jobs, for his real blacksmith shop was on Campbell Street in Woburn. Mr. Brown was probably the last local blacksmith to be associated with Burlington. He was active as a blacksmith through the 1930s. Since then, blacksmithing as a trade or a craft has become obsolete around here. Sidney died at the age of 76 in 1951.

Longfellow’s description of the blacksmith as a “mighty man” is a good one, because any man standing for hours before a hot forge and pounding white hot metal with a heavy hammer must be a pretty rugged individual. The coal he used for his fire was good soft bituminous, giving his shop that acrid smell peculiar to a smithy. Young onlookers gasped as the anvil rang and the sparks flew.

Built before the Revolution, Burlington’s central blacksmith shop was located on the corner of Center and Bedford streets in what is now park property. It was operated in 1800 by Solomon Trull who was born in 1764 and as a boy probably watched his father run the forge which he inherited. He is listed in the assessment of 1798 as owning a fairly substantial home which stood directly across the street. That parcel of land next to the Union School is designated as the Trull house lot on a plot plan of the Marion Estate drawn in 1862.

Richard Alley, who boarded at the Marion Tavern until he married, became the new smith. When the Church of Christ was remodeled in 1846, a fine steeple was added to the plain, almost square, building. The congregation had installed a bell for $252.62. Alley fabricated the ironwork to hang it, for a fee of $2.44. He charged more for the bell rope than he did for the ironwork. Ten years later, he may have designed and made the weathervane which still flies over the museum building.

When Alley died in 1890, the old smithy became the property of Henry P. Cox, a good blacksmith and a wheelwright. He made and repaired wagon wheels. This was a craft in itself. Once the wooden hub, spokes and the several sections of the rim were fastened securely together, the iron tire or rim had to be sweated on. This required minute measurement of both rim and tire. The iron tire had to be heated so that it expanded enough to slip over the wooden rim. Cooling fastened it in place. Cox probably dunked the whole wheel in the horse trough outside the door of his shop. But Cox remained in business there for only a period of 10 years or so.

A Mr. Dockendorf then took over the shop and worked there for 10 or 12 years, at least until 1910. During his 10 years there he did work off and on for the town farm, repairing farm machinery and sharpening tools. He built a small house behind the shop. The house became known as the Bill Pollock house and the smithy became a garage. When the Simonds Trustees bought the property in 1953, the old blacksmith shop was torn down and the house moved to Bedford Street. That house is now occupied by the Harrison Grahams.

Another blacksmith shop mentioned in early records is one transferred in 1813 from a Bill Center to a James Walker, the location being “near the mountain.” Since the only mountain in Burlington mentioned in those early records is Mt. Playnum, the high ground facing Mountain Road in Winnmere, it can be assumed that somewhere near the old schoolhouse on Mountain Road. Just who operated it and for how long is unknown.

Over the years a number of men have been listed as blacksmiths but where they worked is not mentioned. The voting list shows three in 1900 and five as late as 1921. They may have been working in foundries or machine shops out of town. John Thylander, who built the little house on Winn Street in which the Gelineaus now live, was also a blacksmith in his younger days. He never owned a shop, so when the call for blacksmithing declined he became a leather worker. But just as his love for blacksmithing caused Sid Brown to pound iron until he was past 70, so too did John Thylander in his declining years work with iron as a hobby in the little shack he built for that purpose in his back yard.

The man who used to wield a hammer now handles a welding torch, and the glamour of blacksmithing has become one with the past, except for historical restorations such as Strawberry Bank, Shelburne and Sturbridge.