Traditional occupation that is as tough as steel

Retiring: Baltimore's blacksmith is leaving his position next month, and the job won't be filled.

March 01, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

There's a vat of whale oil in the city's central garage, and it sends up flames and a stinky cloud of smoke when one of America's last municipal blacksmiths uses it to harden a glowing hunk of steel.

The oil has been there longer than the blacksmith, and there's no telling what the city will do with it when Rudi Bethke Sr. retires after 22 years next month.

There are no plans to fill the job, which involves making and repairing specialty tools - not shoeing police horses, which is done by a free-lance farrier.

But Bethke, 63, expects Baltimore to have a hard time getting along without him.

"The city's going to miss the blacksmith, I tell you that," he said.

A city blacksmith might seem like an anachronism, particularly for an administration known for its use of technology. Mayor Martin O'Malley is better known for his BlackBerry, a wireless messaging device, than his blacksmith.

The blacksmith came to the administration's attention recently during a session of CitiStat, a high-tech system for tracking departmental efficiency. Number crunchers in the meeting learned not only that there was a blacksmith on the payroll, but also that he was making an expensive specialty tool for Baltimore's 45 water-meter readers.

Each combination pry bar, hammer and five-sided meter key costs the city nearly $200. A comparable tool is available commercially for less than $20, said Matt Gallagher, director of CitiStat.

"It's not as durable, but it's definitely more cost-effective," he said.

Bethke scoffs at the notion the mass-produced version could measure up to the ones he crafts. And he is not the only one.

"Meter readers basically don't want to give it up," said George L. Winfield, director of the city's Public Works Department, which employs Bethke.

Unique job

Even though they do not intend to replace Bethke, city officials say he has been worth his weight in tool steel, saving money by making replacement parts that keep old machines and vehicles running. Bethke, who makes $35,000 a year, also sharpens jackhammer bits, straightens tire rods and makes mounting pins for city snowplows - on the spot if they're needed in the middle of a storm.

"It's not as if we have a typewriter repair person in there when everyone has a computer," Gallagher said.

"He is a blacksmith, and you think the need for that skill has gone away. But in fact, he is a very relevant member of public works, and he plays an important role."

But they don't appear on many municipal payrolls. Of the 11 biggest cities in the United States (Baltimore is 12th), only the three largest employ them.

New York has more than a dozen, who fix wrought-iron fences and gates for the parks department. Los Angeles has one, who makes and repairs tools for the water department. Chicago has 23, who mostly keep busy bending snowplows back into shape.

San Jose, Calif., has a metal fabrication mechanic, but he doesn't do smithing any longer.

"Can't quite imagine Longfellow waxing poetic about the village fabrication mechanic under the spreading chestnut-tree," said David Vossbrink, a city spokesman.

Long gone are the days when so many people made their living with hammer, anvil and forge that practically every Tom, Dick and Harry took the last name Smith.

In 1900, the country had 220,000 blacksmiths. The number had sunk to 45,000 by 1950, 10,000 by 1970. These days, blacksmiths are so few that the government doesn't track them, said Gary Steinberg, a spokesman for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A British inventor by the name of Sir Henry Bessemer started putting blacksmiths out of business when, in 1855, he patented the Bessemer process for creating molten steel. That led to mass production of tools and other metal products.

"Bessemer came in and made cheap steel and made it very homogeneous and gave us some products you could depend on," said James Wallace: director of the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

But Bethke still does things the old-fashioned way for Baltimore in one corner of the city's central garage.

He heats octagonal bars of steel in a roaring 3,000-degree gas furnace, then pounds them into shape with a hammer and anvil or a 100-year-old power hammer. The "Little Giant" power hammer looms over one corner of the shop, about as tall as the 6-foot-3 1/2 -inch Bethke.

If he is making a tool that has to be especially hard but not so hard that it becomes brittle, Bethke dunks the hot metal in whale oil.

"Quenching" hot steel in the thick, liquid blubber causes the metal to cool more quickly than by air, but more slowly than in plain or salt water, Wallace said. Whale oil hasn't been commercially available for probably a half-century, so most blacksmiths have to settle for a petroleum-based product, he said.

One recent afternoon, Bethke stuck a chisel-in-the-making in the 25-gallon drum of black oil. "It's gonna smell," he said. Flames licked his asbestos gloves, and the odor of car exhaust mixed with a backyard barbecue billowed up.

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