How metalwork connected this Vt. blacksmith to his community
Steve Bronstein has built a life for himself at the Blackthorne Forge in Marshfield, Vermont. What began as a hobby as a young college graduate has grown into a staple of the Marshfield community.
Inside the forge it is loud and hot. Old projects are scattered around the barn. Metal sheets layer the floor, surrounded by an assortment of tools. To an outsider, the shop may look chaotic. But after a few moments, it is clear an artist is at work.
Bronstein is hammering away at some steel rods that are destined to soon be candle holders.
"I've got some candlesticks that I put in the forge, and you can see near the outside of the fire, the metal is still black," he says. "Inside the fire, it's now a bright orange, which is probably, oh, 1,500 degrees."
Bronstein puts the rods into his forge — which is a 2-by-4-foot box, perched on a metal stand. He stands at the ready, his hammer in hand.
"I'm just heating up the — where the cup is, and I'm going to hammer that cup over the horn of the anvil, and texture the end," he says. "So just the whole piece will be touched by the hammer, there will be no modern remnants of the original material left behind."
Put simply, blacksmithing is the art of forging iron and steel using tools. Metalwork.
"I make things, home accessories: clocks, vases, custom work," Bronstein says.
He began this line of work after college, through a University of Vermont workshop taught by a Waitsfield blacksmith. And Bronstein liked it more than his day job working at a physiology lab at the University of Vermont.
"So every day I'd come home from the lab, take off my white lab coat, put on my leather apron, and I had set up a little shop in my backyard, and just started with my books," he says.
Soon, he got a job at the Shelburne Museum.
"People would come in and go, 'How do you do this? How do you do that?' I had hardly, no experience. So I would just they'd asked me this question. I'd shrug, grab the book, look it up right in front of them," Bronstein says.
Eventually he was able to make a living, and in 1980 he opened his own forge. And a lot has changed since he first started as a blacksmith.
"When I first started in 1980, there were still working farms around here, and people would — farmers would come up here with their tractors and I helped them fix it, and I would do that kind of work," Bronstein says. "And it's evolved over the years to a more contemporary kind of ironwork for people's homes."
You can see it in the shop. In one corner there’s a classic blacksmith hammer and anvil, but like everything else, blacksmithing has evolved over the centuries, and new tools and machines have also become commonplace.
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Blacksmiths have been a central part of communities for hundreds of years. Bronstein stumbled upon Marshfield accidentally, but in the decades since, the relationship has become symbiotic.
"You know Vermonters can be reticent, and it takes a while to become part of the community," he says. "And especially being a New Yorker, we did not have this immediate connection."
But he says his craft connected him to the community.
"So folks who might never have crossed paths with me, or it might have been 10 years of going to town meeting before they talked to me, were suddenly on my doorstep, at eight o'clock in the morning," Bronstein says. "The tractor was running. I was still having breakfast, but the farmers would show up and just wait at the dooryard till I came out so I could fix whatever it was, and they'd be on their way. And I quickly became a resource for the community."
Though farmers are rarely showing up at Bronstein's doorstep early in the morning these days, he has found different ways to interact with the community through Youtube videos and in-person classes.
"In the heyday, I maybe had 150 galleries that I might be selling to at any one time," Bronstein says. "Now, instead of focusing so much on that part of the business, now we're teaching more, and I run introductory classes. I have these, they’re great three-hour classes, people come in from young teens, to — I actually had four generations of a family come in. And everybody took the class, grandparents, the grandchildren."
The landscape has changed, but Bronstein's role in the Marshfield community is as vital as ever.
"I've been here for 32 years," he says. "And I still live here, and I still feel very much part of the community."
Now in his 60s, Bronstein says he isn’t ready to retire completely. But he has begun to scale back. With a renewed focus on teaching, he’s content to shape and mold hot metal inside his forge in Marshfield.
This story was produced in collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.