Tiny Cloverdale, Man. once had a church, dance hall, one-room schoolhouse and the small cow-calf operation owned by Tom and Pam Jenkins.
The joke around here was salvation, damnation, education and starvation could all be found here, says the Jenkins’ son Matt.
There was something else here then too — a blacksmith shop on the Jenkins’ farm.
And it’s still here. Most days you’ll find Matt working in it, hammering hot iron into bottle openers, shelf brackets, gates, stair railings and other things he calls “house jewelry.”
The specialty iron products are sold to customers placing orders to his business Cloverdale Forge, through its Etsy Shop or over the company’s website.
Jenkins, an engineer by training, went full-time blacksmithing a year ago.
“I’ll definitely call it a passion or an addiction, because they say addictions sometimes ruin your career,” he jokes. “Blacksmithing definitely ruined my engineering career, if you look at it that way.”
He’s a busy man and work is more than steady, with teaching classes between filling customer orders.
“We’ve got a full year under our belts now, and we’re not starving,” he said. “We’re making trips to the mailbox almost every day with stuff shipping out.”
A forge on the farm
How he became a blacksmith is a story that started the month he was born. It was 1976, when, with a second child on the way, his father Tom decided he should be at home more. So he quit his job as a travelling salesman selling agricultural equipment and applied at Lower Fort Garry, which was looking for someone with blacksmith experience.
He didn’t have any, says Matt, but, his dad didn’t tell the interviewers that.
“He said, ‘Well, we have a forge on the farm,’” says Jenkins. “He said he’d made tons of things.”
Most were wood ticks, squished on the anvil, or straightened nails, he adds. “But he basically bluffed his way through the whole interview and they gave him the job.”
Tom learned by doing, of course, and taught his young son some of the ancient craft too. Matt eventually worked a few summers at Lower Fort Garry too, but left after high school to earn a degree at McGill University. He thought he’d chosen his profession. But his fate was already being forged.
“When I came home from university… people would say, ‘oh, you’re a Jenkins, so you’ll know how to blacksmith,’” he said.
“And I say, ‘Well, we’ve got a forge on the farm.’”
Blacksmithing a craft
But he did want to learn more and deciding to take some time off between education and getting a job, he headed to John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, where blacksmithing was taught among other traditional arts and crafts. Back in Manitoba he did work as an engineer in Winnipeg a few years.
But he sorely missed the clang of his three-pound hammer on the battered anvil at the farm shop, and was out at Cloverdale every chance he got making stuff.
“It was hard to get this out of the blood,” he says. Word began to spread and customers asked for items to be made. As those jobs increased, he faced the decision whether to keep his job or devote himself full time to Cloverdale Forge.
Cloverdale Forge has now become a place where others tap the iron in their blood too. Classes fill up fast and it’s because there’s a lot of interest — and nowhere else to learn, he said. The nearest guild is Minnesota and you’d have to travel to Saskatchewan or Ontario to find other instructors.
Forge a community
That’s why he’d like to see blacksmiths — and other Manitobans interested in it — get to know one another.
That’s the point of a one-day workshop, called Forge and Forum, coming up next month at Cloverdale. Jenkins has invited Alberta-based blacksmith Mark Pearce to visit June 3, do demos, and talk about blacksmithing as an art and craft and how it differs from what goes on in a regular welding shop.
“Crafts like woodworking have always been there,” he said. “There’s always been a group here and there and everyone has a table saw. But very seldom do you find a hobbyist blacksmith.
“What we’re trying to do is gather folks together, and have a group, not necessarily dedicated to history, but to the craft of blacksmithing.”