Blacksmiths: The Most Important Craftsmen in Town Part I

When Master Blacksmith John Owen Lynch (1793-1860) arrived from New York in Guelph in 1827, he was facing a considerable challenge. This was a pioneer community. As the only blacksmith, he was expected to help John Galt fulfill his plans to create a thriving community in this wilderness.

There is no doubt that the blacksmith was an extremely important individual in any early settlement. He was the proverbial and indispensable jack-of-all-trades. While farmers took care of their own tools to an extent, it was the blacksmith who was educated in making and repairing these same tools to a higher standard.

It was to the blacksmith that all other craftsmen turned when their tools required repair work. A blacksmith could also make tools and create new variations. In fact, when it came to metalwork, the blacksmith was responsible for the manufacturing and repairing of all types. This meant knowing how to make everything from nails to horseshoes to ploughs to basic kitchen items to fancy hitching posts.

Blacksmiths made horseshoes and then applied them (as a farrier). They repaired the wagons essential for carrying goods and providing services. If a plough broke or an edge-tool required repair, or nails were needed, people went to a blacksmith.

Blacksmiths were equipped to perform these tasks. They had the right tools, the proper training, the level of experience and the skills to do so. In the 1800s, blacksmiths did not become masters at their craft/trade until they had undergone an apprenticeship. This was followed by becoming a journeyman. Only after the requisite time of between four and seven years had passed could a journeyman be considered a master blacksmith.

From Apprentice to Shop Owner

In Guelph, examples of this route from apprentice to master blacksmith abound. William Sallows of Guelph apprenticed first with John Sallows (no relation) in 1842. He then worked with Dan Linderman, a blacksmith then George Wilson during the 1850s. Only following his training with these local blacksmiths did he decide to set up his own shop at the corner of Gordon and Wellington. By then it was the early 1860s. This particular shop became a family affair. It grew to be one of, if not the largest blacksmith shops in Guelph.

However, George Rodger and William Gibb served only one year at Coffee’s Blacksmith and Wagon Shop before setting up their own establishments. Rodger opened his in 1864; Gibbs in 1865. This, like many who today work in various industries and retail, was the goal of many apprentices. However, like so many other business ventures, it depended upon economics. When times were good, master blacksmiths had to pay their apprentices more to retain them. Yet, by doing so, they increased the chances of them obtaining enough funds to leave earlier and start their own shop.

In poor economic times, the opposite applied. In fact, with less demand for his skills and products, a blacksmith might do more than pay journeymen and apprentices less money. A blacksmith may release them, forcing them to perhaps travel to another community to find a position.

Before they could reach this exulted position of mastersmith, apprentices had to settle in to a hard work ethic. During this period, many apprentices and journeymen did not live at home or even in their original community. Often, they lived with the blacksmith. Under the contract, the master blacksmith was to provide the apprentice with food, training and schooling. It is a fallacy to consider blacksmiths as ignorant and unable to read or write. They had to be well-schooled in order to operate a successful business.

Many of Guelph’s apprentices lived with their masters in the years before 1861. Morris Coffee was to be found “at May’s Blacksmith,” while James Demsey was at Owen Lynch’s. In 1860, besides family members, William Sallows housed both Charles Pindar and Charles Eby. Thomas Anderson housed Joseph Blake (Journeyman) and George Black (Apprentice).

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