A farrier's skills are always in demand

White Hall man, sons carry on family blacksmithing tradition

Harford Agriculture


Nestled in a new Cape Cod in White Hall, on Jolly Acres Road, a blacksmith's family starts its day early.

David Belt Sr., 47, and his apprenticed son, Brian, 19, go to a truck filled with the equipment of a modern-day farrier - an anvil that will be used to hammer horseshoes to fit horses and an ever-expanding supply of aluminum shoes for racers and heavier shoes for riding horses.

They will head to the barns of McDonogh School in Owings Mills, or Tranquillity Farms in Jacksonville, or to other farms in the horse country of Maryland.

"There's always a demand," said Holly Gilmore, manager of Tranquillity Manor Inc., who has 75 horses at the Harford-Baltimore County line.

"It's a dying art. It's harder and harder to find good people that are reliable and educated."

Horses can need shoeing as often as every four weeks. That keeps David Belt jumping.

Unlike the days of the blacksmith when work was done over a smoky forge where coal provided the searing heat to mold the metal, he uses a propane torch to heat presized horseshoes into a custom fit for his clients' horses - all types and sizes, from show jumpers to pleasure horses.

It's different from the work of his predecessors, who made wagon wheels, nails and other household items that fueled the Industrial Revolution or provided the parts for needed inventions.

David Belt is one of a few farriers in Maryland, a state where horses are the third-largest industry, said Bill Santoro, who trains young horses at Prospect Farm in Monkton. One son, David Jr., 22, has already finished his apprenticeship of 15 months and started on his own business. Brian is learning and so far likes the work. Both young men graduated from North Harford High School but knew from the start they would follow in their father's footsteps.

Professional, quick

"David Belt is professional in the way he handles different horses," said Santoro.

Belt is fast as well as competent.

"I can make 58 shoes [27 pairs] in a day," David Belt Sr. said. "And the `standard' after a five-year period is only 15 pairs."

He is no ordinary farrier.

Belt's list of ancestors reads like a history book of the industrial age, when blacksmiths were the most important people in the community.

The first Belt blacksmith is noted as being born in 1779. Great-great-grandfather Jackson Belt, born in 1816, was the second recorded blacksmith in the Belt family, followed by William H. Belt, born 1848, followed by Clarence Alvin Belt, born 1891. That blacksmith, known as "Al," was a grandfather that Wayne Belt, David Belt Sr.'s cousin, remembers had a shop near the corner of York and Shawan roads.

That shop is now gone.

"Grandfather had an auction and I didn't know," said Wayne Belt.

After "Al" Belt was Uncle Charles Herbert Belt, born 1895, also a blacksmith in Maryland.

These ancestors were important craftsmen, making everything from pots and pans, to nails, to small parts for inventions. The blacksmith shop was a gathering place for local farmers and for homesteaders getting things made fast, unlike a hardware store today for buying readymade nails and hammers.

"My grandfather made the `Easy-Off,' a device for removing broken bolts. It was patented by someone from Baltimore later," said David Belt Sr.

Thinking more of passing on the tradition to his two sons than of the money to be made from patented inventions, David Belt Sr., who learned the trade from his cousin Wayne, has been intent on keeping the customers happy.

Gilmore said the family is doing more than following a tradition of who they are in the field, although "they are excellent at what they do."

Gilmore said, "We call them the knights in shining armor, because they are just the old-time neighboring wonderful kind of people."

David Belt Sr. works like an old-time barber, said Bill Santoro. There are jokes and stories; all the while Belt has an intuitive way of working with and soothing each horse.

"He's very, very good at handling all the different situations," said Street Moore, director of riding at McDonogh School.

"Different horses have different feet. One thing he does really well is his shoes stay on. We have a lot of horses, about 30 of the 65, on the show circuit that are very successful, and he does them all."

Occupational hazards

The dangers of the work include a tail swishing flies that can hit the farrier's eyes, or a kick that can land him on the other side of a barn.

"You get hurt," he said. "It's not a job for sissies."

Belt noted bumps on the head, even concussions from a kicking horse. That's not to mention the effect of the heat from a torch, better than the old days of the coal-heated equipment.

"If you have a coal forge, you can take and heat up the iron just like a hot piece of bubble gum at 110 degrees," he said.

And there are the medical concerns when a horse has an injury that requires collaboration with a veterinarian. Belt is known by veterinarians as far away as the University of Pennsylvania.

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