Father and son help keep blacksmith's craft alive

Neighbors

January 15, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AMONG THE many interesting people in our little community are two blacksmiths.

You may have noticed the work of Dutch Forge Blacksmiths in June at the Savage Fest. The father and son who make up the company demonstrated their ancient craft at the fair.

Walter Lynn Van Alstine and his son, Walter Jr., began blacksmithing as a hobby.

The senior Van Alstine is a carpenter by trade.

Born in New York state and raised in Germany, he remembers waking up as a child to the sounds of pounding metal. Van Alstine lived across the street from a blacksmith.

His family moved back to the United States in 1949 - his mother still lives in Laurel - and Van Alstine became a carpenter.

About 20 years ago, he began learning blacksmithing and taught his son.

The younger Van Alstine is a machinist for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and a dedicated weekend smith.

The Van Alstines are members of the Central Maryland Blacksmiths' Guild, which meets at the Carroll County Farm Museum. Members attend workshops there and give demonstrations in the museum's antique blacksmithing shop and at farms and fairs on spring, summer and fall weekends.

This weekend, the Van Alstines will attend a guild meeting - open to the public - at the farm museum.

The elder Van Alstine says the hobby is growing. Four years ago, the guild had 30 members. Now it has 180 members who meet regularly to forge steel, show off their best pieces and discuss techniques.

Iron is almost impossible to obtain, the father said.

In addition to manning the antique blacksmith shop at the Carroll County Farm Museum, the guild has a building on the property with five forges, where members teach blacksmithing.

The Van Alstines have their own forges, too.

``You can have a lot of tonnage in tools,'' Van Alstine Sr. says, ``but the work can be delicate. We have people in the club who make roses out of steel.''

The club attracts newcomers and professionals from as far away as Virginia.

Some members work as smiths for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

The Van Alstines make small items such as flowerpot hangers, letter openers, pot hangers and ``courting candlesticks.''

Courting candles were made for fathers of courted girls. When a candle burned down to the metal of its adjustable candlestick, it was time for the boy to go home.

``If the father didn't like the boy, he'd set it very short,'' the elder Van Alstine said.

Baltimore boasts the oldest continuously operated blacksmith shop in the country, on Lafayette Street.

But blacksmithing, which has died out as a trade, has made a comeback as a craft.

For the Van Alstines, it's a family affair. They sign each piece with a hallmark.

The elder Van Alstine signs his work with the mark of a wooden shoe pointing to the left. His son signs his with a shoe pointed to the right.

When they both work on a piece, it is stamped with a pair of shoes.

And a third generation, Patricia Van Alstine, 10, has her own hallmark - a tulip.

According to her grandfather, Patricia thinks it looks more like a duck's foot.

When the three smiths work together, the piece gets all three hallmarks.

The Dutch Forge is named in honor of the Van Alstine family's origins: Their name means ``a house of all stone'' in Dutch.

The Van Alstines are glad to show their work or to demonstrate blacksmithing for small groups such as Scout troops or school classes.

To inquire about buying a handmade piece, to schedule a tour or discuss joining the Blacksmith's Guild: 301-725-4826

Dues are $15 a year.

Portrait artists

Come to the Savage library and see the new portraits drawn by the students of Forest Ridge Elementary School.

The portraits are on display near the children's section above the copying machines.

The artists are Rameen Chaharbaghi, Lambert Fleming, Robby Foy, Harry Jung, Sam Kim, Amanda Moore, Shannon Scott, Erin Southard, Omair Vohra and Shana Weiman.

Tea and nonsense

The Mad Hatter's Party is today!

Join the staff of the Savage library in a tribute on his birthday to Charles Dodgson, who, under the pen name Lewis Carroll, wrote ``Alice in Wonderland.''

You can make a madly attractive hat for yourself and enjoy stories.

Drop in at 2:30 p.m. No registration is required.

Information: 410-880-5978.

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