Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The old blacksmith is watching, just ask John July 20, 2012

A sign tacked onto the blacksmith shop at the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna reads: It reminds us of the “horse and buggy” days gone by. A lot of horseshoes, buggy and wagon wheels came in and out of the Bixby shop, as well as other blacksmith shops throughout the county. These shops were an essential part of all villages, towns and cities in the 1800’s.

INSIDE THE OLD BLACKSMITH SHOP, John Styndl is reading the newspaper on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon. He has no intention of firing up the forge or picking up the tools to demonstrate how his great great grandfather, Frank Styndl, once pounded hot metal into useful equipment or shaped shoes for horses.

Instead, he takes pride in telling visitors about the blacksmith shop Frank built on his farm east of Bixby in 1896, ten years after the Styndl family immigrated to the U.S. from the Czech Republic. Frank worked as a blacksmith in the Old Country and then in his own shop in Steele County, Minnesota, until his death in 1931.

Today that blacksmith shop sits on the grounds of the Steele County Historical Society’s Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna which, on a recent Sunday, hosted an historical extravaganza. John was volunteering in the blacksmith shop when I entered through double sliding doors into a dark room illuminated by the blinding glare of a bare light bulb and sunlight filtering through doors.

John in Frank’s blacksmith shop where, “all the equipment in the shop such as wheelbenders, drill presses, bench vises, foot grinders, files, hammers, tongs and other equipment were used by Frank.”

Rusty tools and horseshoes cling to the walls and a cut out, near life-sized photo of Frank leans next to an anvil draped with horseshoes as great great grandson John speaks about his interest and work in preserving the blacksmith shop.

He remembers biking past the abandoned blacksmith shop as a kid, asking his father about the faded signage on the building. His father and a great uncle did occasional blacksmithing, but nothing like that of three generations of the Styndls prior who earned their livelihoods as blacksmiths.

John dreamed of someday moving Frank’s shop to the Village of Yesteryear. Eventually that became a reality and, from 1991 – 1996, his family and neighbors worked to restore the building. He even found an old house chimney from the appropriate time period, knocked off the mortar and rebuilt the 240 bricks into a new chimney.

Family photo of John and Frank Styndl.

“I’m glad to be able to preserve it,” John says of F. Styndl’s blacksmith shop. He’ll tell you, though, that he gets a bit uneasy with Great Great Grandpa Frank’s likeness watching his every move.

About that time in our conversation, another visitor steps into the blacksmith shop and shares how he remembers, years ago, observing his local blacksmith, bent over, toiling in the heat of his shop. “He was always cranky,” he notes.

The three of us laugh and figure we’d be crabby, too, in such uncomfortable working conditions.

It is stories and remembrances like this which make a building like the old blacksmith shop more than just a structure occupying space at a site such as the Village of Yesteryear.

Stories connect buildings to people and to the past.

You need only take the time to pause and ask, to listen and to observe, if you are to understand the history that has molded lives and communities and is still shaping the future.

CLICK HERE TO READ a previous blog post about the Steele County Historical Society’s Extravaganza at the Village of Yesteryear. Then click here to read a second post on the event.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


15 Responses to “The old blacksmith is watching, just ask John”

  1. treadlemusic Says:

    We used to be in Owatonna a couple times a month for motorcycle club meetings. Went past the sign/turn-off for the village and never had the time to stop. I think of these hot days and of days gone by when such occupations as blacksmithing was the ongoing trade……and we think it’s hot! Ha! People can say that in ‘those’ days people were ‘conditioned’ to the heat but HOT IS HOT!!!! No A/C to go home to…ugh! Your posts impose a bit of a guilt trip on me for all the “out my back door” things I have driven by and neglected. Hugs (anyhow…hehe), D

  2. Allan Landman Says:

    My Wife and I will have to take a week off before Summer is over and visit this wonderful vilages. Albert Lea also has a great village set up on their fair grounds too. Southern Mn has a good number of these very interesting re-established building communities. If a building can not be restored on it’s original site, the next best thing is to place it in one of these “New” villages. My heart gets a jolt when any old building is knocked down into a heap of rubble! So many historic buildings have gone to the “big hole” in the ground. All of these villages of replaced buildings, are so much work for so few people. The Heroes of these saved buildings give hundreds of hours of their time to create these “new old” towns. The next visit, thank the volunteers for their contribution to saving our Past. In most cases volunteers are needed for mowing, dusting, guiding, or anything else it takes to keep the enthusiasm going. To all of the people who make these places exist, THANK YOU FOR SAVING THE PAST, FOR THE FUTURE. Thanks Audrey, for posting the photos and stories of Minnesota’s pioneers.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Allan, as always, your comments are so thoughtful and purposeful. Most definitely volunteers need to be thanked for their efforts in preserving our past. John’s dedication to preserving the blacksmith shop is a prime example. So thank you, volunteers for your enthusiasm, hard work, efforts and more.

  3. htrax107 Says:

    Love the blacksmith shop blog. There was a blacksmith shop in Blakeley yet back in the early 50’s into the early 60’s. I would go with my uncle when he had some piece of equipment or harness to be repaired. I was fascinated by the large forge and loved to watch the blacksmith form those pieces of white hot iron into any shape that he wanted. There are many blacksmiths around still today to form shoes for the many horses that are around.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Ah, yes, I remember occasionally going to the blacksmith shop in my hometown with my dad. These men (any women blacksmiths out there?) are true artisans.

  4. Allan Landman Says:

    Here’s an after thought. There was a Black Smith in a town close by who was called “Snowball”. My Dad would talk about Snow Ball fixing anything that was metal. I asked him why they called him Snow Ball, and the answer is evident, he was completely black from the forge smoke, etc, and never taking a bath!!! Snow Ball died years ago when my Dad was a young man. Oh the memories!

  5. Jackie Says:

    Very cool post Audrey, I love reading about things of the past and how people made a living in days gone by. My husband’s great grandpa’s were both blacksmiths in Chatfield, which is just south of Rochester, we have some neat photo’s of them in the shop…. It’s just so nostalgic 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      How wonderful that you have those old photos. These men were true craftsmen and artists.

  6. Allan Landman Says:

    WOW!!! Is the only word to describe the little log house village near Hastings MN. We attended a wedding there, and it was first class all the way. Each building is kept pristinely. All 160 acres is covered with lush lawn, and the most beautiful gardens! There are no signs to direct you to the Village. You must go onto their web site to find where it is. The church where the wedding was held is air-conditioned and meticulously restored! We met the owner Steve Bauer and we thanked him for saving all these buildings. When we spotted Porky’s Drive In, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven!!!!!!!!! It is wonderful and when night fell on the village, all of the vintage neon and bulb signs throughout the grounds, LIT!!!!!!!!!!!!! Porky’s “Pig” sign was the ultimate. Can you tell I am overjoyed by the old? !!!!! We thanked Steve Bauer for saving old MN buildings and restoring them to their once great look. I strongly suggest everyone to visit this wonderland. http://www.littleloghouseshow.com is their address. Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Another Southern Minnesota Eden!!!!!!!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks for the info on the little log house village. Sounds like another road trip, this time to Hastings. So wonderful that you thanked Mr. Bauer for his preservation efforts.

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