PORTLAND, Maine — In a dimly lit room, down an alleyway in the Old Port, Sam Smith had a few irons in the fire.
The subterranean, ramshackle chamber dominated by the large man in a Tyrolean hat and suspenders, was warmed by the open brick fire called a forge. Since 2012 he has used a space in The Portland Company building that has been a blacksmith shop on and off for 170 years. His forge headquarters, where workers made guardrails, brakes, pull levers and linkages for steam locomotives, carried a cinematic air.
As the full-time blacksmith removed an iron rod from a coal fire, shadows leaped across the 30-foot-high stone walls. He placed the fiery shaft on his anvil and hammered away.
“The skill of hitting things with things is neolithic,” said Smith, a history major with a fascination for the physical.
The head of the Maine Blacksmiths Guild, made up of a handful of journeymen and apprentices, Smith calls himself a purist. “How am I supposed to teach it if I’m not?”
The Portland Forge is a working blacksmith shop that produces ironwork, from ship anchors to candle holders, using 19th century tools and techniques. His jobs come by word of mouth.
People from around the world hire him for restoration work and to make sconces, latches, hinges, tools and lighting fixtures. He just completed a stained glass window shutter hinge for a castle in Germany.
“My entire life is dedicated to blacksmithing,” the 31-year-old, who has a month and a half waiting list, said.
As one of Maine’s last traditional blacksmiths, defined as someone who heats metal via coal or charcoal-based fire and hammers elements into artifacts, he is a throwback — straight from central casting.
“Hammering is the technique. There is no fabrication like welding,” Smith said, stoking a coal fire in a forge he made himself.
The New Jersey native discovered blacksmithing when he was 14. Steps from Portland Harbor, he keeps the tradition going.
He placed a glowing, incandescent iron rod on an anvil, and he hammered it with force. It would eventually become a ladle with a dragon’s head. The project would take 2½ hours.
It’s a slow going process, but that speaks to Smith. Like slow food, that’s the point.
“I am helping to preserve the trade that’s been handed down generation to generation,” he said. “I carry the torch for that knowledge.”
Homesteading generations in Maine depended on iron implements forged by the local smith. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem called “The Village Blacksmith” captures their importance.
It begins: “Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands; / The smith, a mighty man is he, / With large and sinewy hands; / And the muscles of his brawny arms / Are strong as iron bands.”
Coal, which Smith still uses, sat in a bucket by his side. The fossil fuel is necessary to turn the iron malleable.
Like the 400 pound anvil in front of him, Smith is holding still in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Rooted in this timeless craft he is stable in the midst of uncertainty.
With the future of Portland Forge in limbo — the building where he operates at 58 Fore St. is slated for redevelopment as mixed-use retail and residence — will Maine lose its singular full-time blacksmith?
This fall, the city’s planning board voted to sustain portions of the complex as a local historic district. But Smith fears his days may be numbered.
“I don’t know if that pertains to its historic use. … This could become another Eventide [restaurant],” he said with a grimace. “I want to be the gentry’s blacksmith.”
Now owned by developers CPB2, building owners could not be reached for comment on the Portland Forge’s future.
Before setting up shop in the building, he was an itinerant blacksmith. Smith’s mobile demonstrations on the streets of Portland caught the eye of the building’s previous owner, Phineas Sprague, who put him up in the space, Smith said. The chamber that originally was a forge was used for storage for decades. Smith resurrected the forge and still uses original tools from blacksmiths who came before him.
With his future tenancy in doubt, he has forged a fall back plan. Smith is looking at Sweden and Amsterdam.
“I am trying to justify my existence in a world that doesn’t understand me,” he said. “If I lose the fight here at the Portland Forge, I’ll build a new shop in Europe. I must go to a society that will embrace me.”
Keeping the original blacksmithery alive in the city center, where wagons and ships could be repaired, matters to Smith.
“To live in 19th century life was to live or die by the blacksmith,” he said. “We represent that seed of civilization.”