By: Scott Campbell
Blacksmith is not an occupation commonly associated with our time. Longfellow’s familiar homage to this bygone era was penned in 1841. However, Ty Zimmerman is one of a fraternity across the country who has kept the brawny tradition alive. In a shed behind his Lower Allen Dwelling, the 50-year old fabricates a plethora of devices, tools, and gadgets that his 18th-century ancestors would promptly recognize.
“I was always interested in history,” says Zimmerman, whose day job is a store manager at Karns Foods in New Bloomfield.
“My dad was into history and influenced me. He worked at the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg, and we lived in northern Virginia for a while. There, Civil War battle sites reinforced my passion for history.”
Eleven years ago, Zimmerman met Shermansdale resident Steve Shaputus.
“At the time, he had been a blacksmith for about 20 years, having been introduced to the trade by a World War I veteran,” says Zimmerman. “Steve was my mentor, but passed away before I could learn all that he had to teach.”
Zimmerman’s first forge was rudimentary. “It was an outdoor barbecue grill, with Kingsford charcoal and a hair dryer as the bellows,” he quips. “My anvil was a piece of railroad track.”
Today, Zimmerman’s dirt-floor shop features two forges. One is fueled by coke and the other is gas-fired.
“I prefer the coke forge, which can go up to 2,850 degrees because I can control how much of the iron I’m using is heated,” Zimmerman explains.
“Originally, I burned soft coal for the fire, but it produced a sulfur gas that wasn’t too popular with my neighbors,” he says. “So, I turned to coke, which is burnt coal and doesn’t generate foul emissions.”
“I prefer the coke forge, which can go up to 2,850 degrees because I can control how much of the iron I’m using is heated,” he explains. A hand-crank blower feeds oxygen to the fire as Zimmerman works on various projects. “The gas forge is enclosed, which limits my options. But, it’s better for production work, when I make duplicates.”
Zimmerman obtains various grades of iron and steel from the Ritner Corporation in Carlisle or Glosser Steel Service Center in Camp Hill.
“You can still get high- quality iron from England,” he says. “Welding iron is easy because the silicon in it acts as the flux and forms the bond between separate pieces.”
Implements for the home are part of Zimmerman’s inventory; candle holders, rotisseries, key holders, trivets, door hinges, hasps and other utilitarian items. However, his skill has landed his restoration projects, as well. One of the most significant was work on an 18th Century carriage.
“It is a French shay, and was owned by Major General Artemas Ward, who fought in the Revolutionary War with Washington,” he says. “The wing around the back of the seat needed replaced, and I was given the task.”
Zimmerman’s contact for that job and several others have been local museum conservator Brian Howard. “I’m like a little kid around Howard,” he chortles. “He gets hold of some incredible stuff.”
That stuff includes a 1908 French Army Renault Tank that needed a restored hatch and other parts, and a 1910 Studebaker Back and Forward electric automobile once used as transport for Senators in Washington. It needed parts for the battery box. “Re-enactors are also good customers,” says Zimmerman, noting another activity in which authenticity is paramount.
And Zimmerman occasionally dons the educator’s mantle. “I’ve given demonstrations to children at Carlisle’s Army Heritage Center,” he says. “It’s part of their history education in school, and one that’s definitely a tangible experience for them.”