Somehow, over the years, the 1838-1841 business ledger of Johnsburg blacksmith Christian Whitaker found its way to Seattle, Washington. This past spring the local historical society was notified that it was being auctioned off in New York City. After a successful bid by Deana Hitchcock Wood, Johnsburg Town Historian, it has returned “home” to Johnsburg.
Village blacksmiths were meticulous in their business affairs and maintained detailed records of orders and debts owed by their customers. Might Christian Whitaker’s business ledger provide some new insights into the life a small mountain town in the Adirondacks prior to the Civil War?
According to an Ancestry.com search, Christian Whitaker was born November 29, 1793, in Duchess County, NY and shows up in the 1820 Johnsburgh (then spelled with an “h”) Federal Census. He married Parthenia Boyd and they had 9 children, two of which pre-deceased them. Christian died October 29, 1881, age 94 years. Parthenia died in 1883, also age 94. They are both buried in the Dutch Reformed Church Cemetery along NYS Route 28 in Wevertown.
We usually think of village blacksmiths only shoeing horses, but Mr. Whitaker’s 130-page business ledger, however, is filled with orders for nails, wedges, hooks, bail hoops, a trowel, bolts, yoke staples, chane (sic) links, a hoe, screws, drag teeth, and repairing wood stoves, a bob slay (sic) and wagons. With hard specie in short supply in rural America, his ledger notes he sometimes was paid in produce, lime, buckwheat, rum, even ‘altering” (neutering) a colt and a pair of pantaloons.
Many last names still common in the community are found in the ledger: Hitchcock, Washburn, Huet (Hewitt), Goodspeed, Waldron, Odaway (Ordway), Roblee (Robley), Ross, Glushey (Galusha) and Stevens. Adiem (sic) Armstrong was a regular customer and on January 22, 1839, had Mr. Whitaker repair 3 bobslays (sic) and mending chanes (sic). Nathan Eldridge was another steady customer in 1839 and 1840 and there are several pages listing all the work the blacksmith did for him. On June 18, 1839, Sampson Grover placed an order for nails. It is unclear if these were house-building nails or for shoeing horses.
We tend to romanticize the village blacksmith. The image of the village blacksmith bend over his anvil, striking red-hot metal just drawn from a hot fire and making something as beautiful as it is utilitarian speaks to us of a simpler time. Even poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was impressed.
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
A September 29, 2019, article in “Working the Flame”, a magazine for blacksmith enthusiasts, notes that there were over 7,500 blacksmith shops and over 15,000 blacksmith workers in this country just prior to the Civil War. Initially farmers tried to mend their own tools, but in time most every town had its own village blacksmith to do that work. Being a blacksmith was a well-respected profession which required years of apprenticeship and hard work before a blacksmith could go out on his own.
But for that “mighty man with large and sinewy hands” to be successful, the village blacksmith also had to be an enterprising and adaptive businessman to survive the changes in 19th Century America. Prior to the Civil War, blacksmiths kept busy making forged nails. At the rate of one per minute, notes the article in “Working the Flame”, such nails were relatively scarce and expensive. Early settlers would often burn down their old cabins to rescue the nails for re-use as they headed west.
The work of hand-made forged nails disappeared with the appearance of nail making factories, such as the Essex Horse Nail Factory along Lake Champlain at Beggs Point in Essex, NY, which could produce hundreds of nails per hour at low cost. Successful Blacksmiths always had the traditional work repairing farm equipment brought to the village “smithy” by local farmers. Repairs were not only made to hoes, plows, and rakes, but also kitchen utensils. Blacksmiths also shoed horses and made repairs to wagons and “buckboards”. No doubt they also repaired the tools used by the early loggers here in the Adirondacks. As tourists began to arrive in the Adirondacks, blacksmiths began working on repairing fancy carriages. With the advent of the early automobile, blacksmiths had to learn to repair car axles. Hand bellows were replaced by rotary fan blowers which were more efficient and drill presses were added to the blacksmith shop. The Art Deco movement provided some work for more creative blacksmiths in making hand-forged decorative ironwork in the early 1900s, but the Great Depression and World War II all but put an end to that work.
Today blacksmithing is most often a hobby and the Adirondack Folk School in Lake Luzerne regularly offers courses in basic blacksmithing.
The Christian Whitaker business ledger may ultimately find itself in an exhibit at the new Johnsburg Historical Society 1870 Waddell House Local History Museum in Wevertown. In 2016 the Adirondack Museum disassembled their George Bardo Blacksmith Shop exhibit and its artifacts and gifted them to the Black River Canal Museum in Boonville, NY.
Image at top: “The Village Blacksmith”, (1858-1859), courtesy of the Library of Congress