Forging with Fire in Railroad Town
by Paul Nielsen
Strolling along the boardwalk past the millinery or walking the path from the Milisen’s main house to its summer kitchen, noses will pick up on it before arrival. A distinct scent emanates from the blacksmith shop, a steady column of smoke rising from its red brick chimney.
The equally distinct tink-tink-tink of blacksmith Randy Dack’s hammer rhythmically rings as visitors peer in through large sliding doors. Dack has worked the forge and anvil in the Wm. Siebler Blacksmith Shop in Stuhr Museum’s Railroad Town for 18 years. Moved to the museum grounds from Aurora, the building is believed to have been used as a blacksmith shop as early as 1899.
Dack jokes that he played with fire too often as a child, despite his mother’s warnings, and thus was destined to become a blacksmith. Trained as a farrier, he was content with horseshoeing until he let his wife get a hold of Country Sampler magazine. She showed him something in the magazine that she liked.
And while he wanted to please his dear wife, he also didn’t want to pay the price the magazine listed for the object. So Dack went to town and spent three times as much on scrap iron as the object actually cost and learned how to blacksmith.
The blacksmith shop offers museum visitors the chance to watch raw materials be transformed into objects.
Like its planing mill and tinsmith shop, Railroad Town’s Siebler blacksmith shop offers museum visitors the chance to watch raw materials be transformed into objects as simple as tent stakes or as intricate as roses. As he hammers red steel rods, Dack talks to folks about the history and craft of blacksmithing. He’ll talk about how high the temperature of his fire needs to be and why horseshoes represent good luck as sparks bounce off of his weathered leather apron. If he learns that a visitor is active military, he will craft a little horseshoe for them.
Ask him how he lost the finger on his right hand, and he’ll tell you that’s what happens when a blacksmith tries to be a carpenter.
Dack works on the aforementioned tent stakes for civil war reenactors, fire pokers for Stuhr Museum interpreters to use while tending their stoves, and from time to time on custom orders for individuals.
His love of blacksmithing can be summed up in three things. He likes seeing someone walk away with objects they can use, he likes molding hard steel that only wants to resist the change he’s forcing on it, and he likes the solitude and calming effect of blacksmithing. “Swinging that hammer gets out all of your frustrations,” he says.