Coloma has a hot time
When temperatures climb in Coloma, Calif., bet that the hottest place in town is the blacksmith shop.
Blacksmiths heat iron over a forge that can reach temperatures of 1,500 degrees until the black metal turns a malleable bright orange. It is then placed onto an anvil where it is shaped by hammers, propelling hundreds of sparks into the air.
Bill Curry can be found ironworking such pieces inside the shop at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park every weekend. Last year the park named Curry, 73, as volunteer of the year. In one year he accumulated 889 volunteer hours.
“I would get pretty bored doing this at home all the time,” Curry said. “In Coloma you are always meeting new people and new blacksmiths.”
Spring and summer are the busiest months for the shop, which is open year-round. Curry estimates anywhere from 200 to 300 kids line the front of the shop each day in spring. Most of Curry’s young visitors are in fourth grade, which is the grade level California has designated for study of state history.
“It keeps us busy,” Curry said, adding that he enjoys watching the children’s eyes widen as the blacksmiths smelt the iron.
“Most of them had no preconceived notions of how people got their hardware (historically),” Curry said.
The biggest piece Curry has ever worked on is the security door at the Coloma school house. It allows people to look into the old building without actually going inside, Curry said. Because his piece was going to be placed on the school, Curry decided to carve cursive lower and upper case “ABCs” into it for a personal touch.
One of the pieces atop the display shelf in front of the smithy shop is a courting candle. The candle is placed into a coil that can be swiveled up or down by a stopper at its base. Fathers used to set the stopper to limit the length of time daughters could visit with suitors. Once the candle burned to its limit, time was up.
Curry worked as an electrical engineer for the California Department of Water Resources for 20 years. He spent five years building an ultra-light airplane before he retired and for two years afterward.
“When I was done, I decided that I was too old to be flying such a thing,” Curry said, which led him to his current hobby.
“I wanted to find (a hobby) to keep me physically active,” Curry said. “I had never really done much metal work.”
He took lessons from a certified California Blacksmith Association instructor at Berkeley, Calif., one summer before he heard about the Coloma shop.
The first useful items Curry remembered making were tools like chisels.
“I tried to stay away from making stuff for people or to establish myself as a specialized blacksmith,” Curry said. “It’s just my hobby.”
“It was 15 miles from my home,” said Curry, a Placerville resident. “It looked like a really good place to get started.”
In 1992 Curry became the first volunteer at the blacksmith shop and has since become one of CBA’s 800 state members and has instructed nearly 40 docents in his craft.
“I think Bill is a master,” said Mary Nelsen, a blacksmith who operates the South Shore Tallac Historic Site during the summer.
“He does beautiful work,” Nelsen added.
Nelsen trained with Curry years ago and said that she appreciated his tolerance for beginners.
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