Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In which I meet a Wisconsin blacksmith November 13, 2014

DARKNESS AND RED-HOT HEAT and banging of metal against metal…

T-C Latane, 412 Second Street in Pepin, Wisconsin.

T-C Latane, 412 Second Street in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Memories of accompanying my farmer father to the blacksmith shop in my hometown of Vesta flash through my mind as I step into the shop of Tom Latané in Pepin, Wisconsin.

Blacksmith Tom Latane talks about his craft  in the front part of his shop. Behind him are examples of his work.

Blacksmith Tom Latane talks about his craft in the front part of the shop he shares with his wife, Catherine. Behind him are examples of his work. Several artisans sells their wares here.

My husband and I have stopped here on a mid-week October afternoon during a brief get-away. By chance, we have found this life-long blacksmith in his shop where anvils and vises, buckets and axe and tools of the trade crowd the brick-floored space.

Tom splits wood in the area where he blacksmiths.

Tom splits wood in the area where he blacksmiths.

While Tom rapid-splits wood for a forge fire, I scan this grimy room with a good luck horseshoe clamped on brick above a neatly lined shelf of corralled chisels.

Hardware crafted by Tom.

Hardware crafted by Tom.

Tom also works with wood, sometimes combining wood and metal in pieces.

Tom also works with wood, sometimes combining wood and metal in pieces.

Tom created this candleholder.

Tom created this candleholding masterpiece.

Standing here in this time, in this place, with a man practicing the aged craft of blacksmithing seems almost surreal. But Tom has been doing this all his adult life, relocating from Maryland to open his Pepin shop in 1983 with his wife, Catherine, a tinsmith.

Two of Catherine's cookie cutters.

Two of Catherine’s cookie cutters.

She’s a native of Minnesota, just across the river, and an artist, too, who crafts tin cookie cutters by hand. Catherine is known for her commemorative Laura Ingalls Wilder cookie cutters in a community that each year celebrates its most famous native daughter.

An anvil in Tom's shop.

An anvil in Tom’s shop.

Surely blacksmith shops existed in this area during the late 1860s when Charles and Caroline Ingalls lived with their family in a cabin in the Big Woods near Pepin.

Tom looks the part of a craftsman.

Tom looks the part of a craftsman.

History holds this town. And Tom looks every bit the part of a long ago craftsman, untamed white beard and longish hair and period cap and suspenders giving him the appearance of a historic reenactor. But he is authentic, hand-forging locks, hardware, tools and candle fixtures.

Symbols of the trade for blacksmithing and tin cutting.

Symbols of the trade for blacksmithing and tin cutting.

I almost expect Charles Ingalls to walk in the door.

A sign at the shop.

A sign at the shop.

FYI: For more information about T. & C. Latané, as this couple calls their business, click here. The shop at 412 Second Street in Pepin is open from noon – 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, May – December or by chance.

© Copyright 2014 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