Couple forges strong bonds, creating with iron

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Fun while forging: Sarah Ritchie-Crowther, left, holds a red hot piece of iron in her tongs as her husband, Daniel Crowther, prepares to strike while the iron’s hot — the blacksmiths understand the true meaning of that phrase. Daniel made the smithing magician, inserted into a hole on top of the anvil, which is holding the iron, so Sarah could more easily make flowers.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Picking the perfect tongs: Daniel Crowther reaches for a tool at his forge, located in a barn behind his historic Valley Falls house. The barn was once a wheelwright’s shop. Crowther and his wife, Sarah Crowther-Ritchie, also a blacksmith, have been demonstrating their art at the Altamont Fair for a dozen years.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

La vie en rose: Blacksmith and artist Sarah Ritchie-Crowther makes roses that look natural and soft — of iron. Her husband makes a more geometric rose, describing Sarah’s as “organic.” They will demonstrate their craft at the Altamont Fair next week.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Iron Age meets Computer Age: Daniel Crowther, who works as a computer technician for the Guilderland schools, displays a picture on his tablet of an Iron Age griddle with oatcakes. He made the iron hangers for the stone griddle while demonstrating blacksmithing at the Altamont Fair. The tablet is set on his dining-room table, held together with iron straps he forged.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

American Gothic: Sarah Ritchie-Crowther and Daniel Crowther stand on the front porch of the River Valley home they’ve meticulously restored. Daniel grew up in the Civil War-era house that has been expanded over the years.

VALLEY FALLS — When Daniel Crowther was 18, he craved a sword.

A player of Dungeons & Dragons, he loved medieval history. He decided to make one for himself.

He recalled his thought process at the time: “It can’t be difficult…It takes a hot fire, something to hit with and to hit on.”

Looking back now with nearly two decades of experience as a blacksmith, he said, “That’s not to say it’s easy.”

His wife, Sarah Ritchie-Crowther, who is also a blacksmith, said that people often tell them they would like to make a sword. To reach that point, she said, takes about three years of constant practice.

“In the process of learning how to get to that sword, I learned about blacksmithing,” said Daniel.

Years later, he made another sword, “for Sarah, for our wedding.” That sword, which is displayed in their living room, reflects their passion and their Celtic heritage.

The couple’s skills complement one another.

“Daniel and I know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well,” said Sarah. “When you have two people, someone has to lead and someone has to follow.” Sometimes, he leads; sometimes, she does.

“I really like doing reproductions,” said Daniel. “Sarah will come up with a design. She has an artist’s temperament.”

Blacksmithing is an art that requires both vision and strength.

“You need manual dexterity,” said Daniel. “You need to maintain a vision in your head of where you are going and, at the same time, make a snap decision on how your next hammer blow will get you there.”

“Strike while the iron is hot” is not a hackneyed cliché for these blacksmiths; it’s a constant reality. In just 15 to 20 seconds, the iron needs to be reheated.

“It has meaning,” said Sarah of the phrase. “So does ‘too many irons in the fire.’”

She explains, for example, if she is making hooks, and has too many irons in the fire at once, “I could burn one of them if I’m distracted…It goes off like a Fourth of July sparkler.”

At the fair

Is blacksmithing an art or craft?

“Both,” Sarah and Daniel answer together.

They’ve been demonstrating their art and craft at the Altamont Fair, in a forge next to the Farmhouse Museum, for a dozen years.

Fair-goers like to watch the blacksmiths at work. “Sometimes people just want to see and hear you make loud noises,” said Sarah.

She was puzzled, when she first started demonstrating at the fair, Sarah said, when people kept asking for nail rings. It turns out that, for decades, there had been farriers — blacksmiths who shoe horses and care for their hooves — at the fair and they would take horseshoe nails and shape them into rings to wear.

Sarah, who has an August birthday that sometimes coincides with Fair Week, replayed a real childhood memory in a dream: At age 6, she got a nail ring herself at the Altamont Fair.

Sarah and Daniel now make and sell nail rings at the fair; they say they’re easy to make.

But they also like to teach people about all the different kinds of blacksmiths through history: the cutler who made knives; the locksmith; the nailor; the gunsmith; the armorer; and the sword maker.

Because horses are still around and need shoes, people are familiar with farriers, said Daniel, and often confuse them with blacksmiths. The word “farrier” comes from the Middle French “ferrier,” which means blacksmith — from the Latin root “ferrum” for iron.

“I use the doctor analogy,” Daniel said, in trying to teach people about the distinctions. “You would not have your tooth pulled by your family doctor. You go to a specialist, a dentist.”

He noted there are even specialties within the specialties; for example, with armor, there were both plate makers and mail (or chain) makers.

“I don’t disrespect the farriers,” said Daniel, noting it is skilled and heavy work.

“We are generalists,” said Sarah, “and very fluid.”

They do everything from Iron Age re-enactments to making modern household goods. The couple also works on commission, developing projects to fit specific needs. For example, one project is working on an iron railing, centering steps to a church altar; the tricky part is, the railing has to be removable for wedding ceremonies.

The couple’s forge is in a barn behind their beautifully restored house on the main street of Valley Falls. The barn once housed a wagonwright’s shop. Their business is named Oak and Acorn — symbolic of themselves and their two now-grown daughters.

Forging a strong union

Daniel, who is 44, began his quest in the early 1990s: “You’re re-inventing everything from scratch,” he said of learning to be a blacksmith. At the time, the Upper Hudson Library System had three books on the subject — two of them were Alex Bealer’s Blacksmithing.

Daniel described the 1969 tome as “a seminal work.” He explained, “In the sixties, Bealer saw the blacksmiths that were left were about to die of old age.” So he recorded their craft.

“The downside of the book for me, in the 1990s and today,” said Daniel, is that the blacksmiths Bealer interviewed and wrote about used wrought iron, which is made with slag that gives it a grain. “You have to be sure not to cut across the grain; it weakens it,” said Daniel, adding of wrought iron, “It moves like a dream.”

“It forge welds,” added Sarah, describing a method of joining two pieces together.

“Wrought iron doesn’t exist today,” said Daniel. “It’s pure. It’s been replaced by steel — iron and carbon.”

What has kept him at his craft all these years?

“I like working with my hands,” said Daniel, whose father was a welder for General Electric. “This material is by far my favorite,” he said of iron. “When it’s hot, it’s plastic.”

“You can bend it, shape it, make it do things that are totally unnatural,” said Sarah.

Sarah was born in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side, and, as she puts it, has gone from living in a building of 500 to a village of 500. Her parents were both involved in theater and her father, an electrician, was an activist in getting lead paint removed from tenements.

She has always lived in old places and says of new homes, “They’re nice to visit but the doors sound funny.”

The couple met in the 1990s when they worked at Comp USA, a retail computer store. Daniel now works as a computer technician for the Guilderland schools — he has an associate’s degree in computer science from the Adirondack Community College — and Sarah works as a banker for the State Employees Federal Credit Union.

Sarah has a fine arts degree from the State University of New York College at Oswego, which required her to learn such arts as pottery and sculpture while her major focus was photography.

She liked to shoot “found objects” just as now she likes to create iron art from discarded pieces.

In a pre-digital age, she also liked hand-coloring photographs.

Soon after they met, Sarah offered to shoot a portfolio of Daniel’s blacksmith work.

As part of her fine-arts training, she had done some welding and came up with some designs for iron work.

“He said he wouldn’t make them. I had to make them myself,” recalled Sarah.  “We’ve been inseparable ever since.”

She recalls a blacksmithing demonstration they put on together before they were married.

Afterward, her mother told her, “You two work well together.”

Her mother died not long after and Sarah, in memory of her, had a Celtic Tree of Life tattooed on her chest.

Daniel grew up in the house where he and Sarah raised their two girls, Paige and Sydney. Sydney, now 20, is a College of Saint Rose student, studying forensic psychology.

“We can burn bodies in the forge,” Sarah quipped, speculating on how her daughter may have become interested in the subject.

“Raising kids in the house where you grew up, you get to teach them all the stuff you did,” said Daniel.

Sarah describes laying floors in the house with her father-in-law in 2000 when he was 70. Sydney came sliding down the banister, much to her mother’s dismay. Sydney said her father had taught her how. When Sarah turned to her father-in-law for support, he asked, “Who do you think taught Daniel?”

Now Sarah’s 8-year-old daughter, Keira, enjoys sliding down that same banister. She also likes to play with the iron doll bed her grandparents forged for her mother, Paige.

The Crowthers have painstakingly restored the house. The original Civil War era home was very small and was added onto over the years.

Exploring the Iron Age

Sarah and Daniel are founders of a group, Ancient Celtic Clans, that does Iron Age re-enactments. They had originally been involved with Viking groups. “It was close to what we wanted,” said Sarah.  “They did interact with the Celts. But it was not what we wanted. If it doesn’t exist, we decided to just do it.”

“We came up with the idea sitting around this table,” said Daniel, reaching his arms cross the wide expanse of wood, held together with iron straps he forged.

“I want to know about my ancient ancestors,” said Daniel, explaining what fuels his interest. “At most cultural fairs, you’re only seeing 200 or 300 years back.”

Daniel’s grandmother came from Glasgow in Scotland, and his father was Welsh. Sarah’s family came to America from Ireland in the early 1900s.

“We really enjoy the skill aspect…We don’t acknowledge modern technology when we do public re-enactments,” said Sarah.

The Iron Age period they depict stretches nearly a thousand years, from 400 B.C to 400 A.D., Daniel said, and geographically covers all the Gallic lands, where today’s France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany are.

As distinct from the preceding Bronze Age, when objects were cast and largely rectilinear, in the Iron Age, blacksmiths hammered objects into shape in flowing, curvilinear designs.

The re-enactors live in tents they’ve made, with straw on the ground as their only mattress.

“There’s a reference in Pliny the Elder’s History of the Natural World indicating Celts stuffed pillows and mattresses with sheep’s wool previously used to clean copper and bronze,” said Daniel, adding this would make sense since copper is a natural fungicide. It’s something the group may try in the future.

“We made shoes stuffed with sheep’s wool,” said Sarah.

Different friends of theirs specialize in various arts and crafts of the period — weaving, woodworking, cooking, and more.

“Daniel and I do iron,” said Sarah.

For the re-enactments, a forge is a hole in the ground. Daniel gets a computer tablet to display pictures of the forge. It shows the two bellows he constructed of slabs of wood; they feed into a clay pipe that blows air on the fire to make it hot.

The device is carefully reconstructed from archeological finds. The wood and leather bellows have, of course, disintegrated over time, but bits of clay remain, and so does vitrolized soil where the forges were, changing the earth to glass particles.

“There’s a ton of tuyere,” Daniel says, referring to broken pieces of the clay tubes.

“It’s an expendable part; we’re finding that out as we use them,” he said.

Daniel brings out a loose-leaf binder filled with drawings of iron implements archaeologists have found — weapons like swords, farm implements, and cooking utensils.

He displays on his tablet a photograph of a griddle — a stone slab hung from hooks he made — with oatcakes cooking upon it.

The use for many of the implements is more mysterious; the re-enactors have to discover their purpose as they use the forged pieces. Take, for example, the “flesh fork.”

“We’ve tried to hang stuff off of it and cook,” said Sarah. “We’ve used it to dig stuff out of a stew pot.”

Neither worked well, so the discovery process continues.

Another picture shows a re-enactor using a warp-weighted loom — a simple, ladder-like portable loom. Asked if the re-enactors dress themselves with cloth from the loom, Sarah quips, “We haven’t made enough yet. I have a hard enough time keeping people from being naked.”