About 20 minutes north of Phoenix (and just 30 minutes by bicycle from where I live), an authentic piece of Wild West history lives on. Known as Pioneer Village, it’s a fictional town of historic structures salvaged from around the state to represent towns that existed throughout Arizona in the late 1800’s. My wife and I had visited the property a year earlier, but I decided to return to gather better insight and inspiration on local ghost towns.
Riding up to the gate, I felt a bit like Clark Griswold upon his arrival to Wally World in Family Vacation. The gate was closed and locked. A sign explained that the exhibit was open Wednesday thru Sunday – today was Monday. No worries, I thought. It was a nice ride.
A tall picket fence of weathered barn-wood ran the Village perimeter, isolating it from the street and an adjacent trailer park. I decided to ride the fence-line and see what I could. The Village lay only a few hundred yards away so I could easily see many of the buildings, recognizing several from my previous visit. There was the saloon toward the front, the corral where they staged gun fights, the blacksmith shop, and in the distance, the iconic country church: white with a tall steeple housing a bell. As I mentioned, most of the buildings are authentic, brought from various towns around the state before they could be demolished. As such, many are also believed to be haunted.
I’d seen as much as I could from the road and was about to return home when I noticed a dirt road heading into the desert. Feeling adventurous, I decided to follow it. The road headed south, away from the Village, but soon I found myself on a dirt path heading west, back toward the town. The path led to another road which led to a clearing and before I knew it, I was on a concrete sidewalk that I knew was on the Village grounds. Being a rule-breaker at heart, I decided to do a quick loop through the grounds. After all, I figured, what better place for a writer to get inspiration than a deserted western town with a history of haunted buildings.
The serpentine path slowed my pace, and forced a more intimate connection with my surroundings. Though not prone to superstition, the desolation soon began to feed my imagination. The school house, the mercantile, the wheelwright shop; they all became Old West-style mausoleums. The streets seemed filled with gun-slinging, parasol-spinning specters. I could almost hear the clop-clop-clop of horses through the stiff breeze. Then I realized, it wasn’t hoofs that I heard. It was the unmistakable sound of a hammer on an anvil. Clank-clank-clank. Is the blacksmith here? I rode toward the building and sure enough, smoke was rising from the chimney. I stopped in front of the shop. The double barn doors were closed and locked, but the clanking continued, much louder now. Leaving my bike, I walked around to the back, recalling a rear door from my previous visit. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to explain my presence, but I figured could just wing it.
Around the back door, I peered into the shop. My eyes took a minute to adjust to the gloom, but soon they focused on a man bent over a glowing hearth. His long white hair stuck out from under his soot-blackened slouch hat. A thick leather apron shielded his once-white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to reveal massive forearms. A thick white beard covered an otherwise weathered and tanned face. With his left hand, he steadied a rod of metal in the coals while his right oscillated a lever connected to a gigantic bellows. The whoosh-whoosh-whoosh filled the small space. His round spectacles reflected the glowing embers, giving him the appearance of a demonic Santa Clause. Releasing the bellows, he drew the rod from the forge, the tip glowed as incandescent as the coals. Turning, he lay the near molten rod on his anvil. Retrieving a five-pound hammer from his bench, he struck the workpiece sending a scattering of sparks in all directions including directly at me. Instinctively I jumped back. My sudden movement caught his attention and he looked up. At first his face reflected the surprise in my own, but then he smiled and spoke.
“Well, hello there, young fella,” he said. At forty-seven I don’t usually get addressed as such, but given the man looked to be in his eighties, I figured it was relative. “Sorry about that. I didn’t see ya there. Come on in,” he motioned with nod. “And get outta the line of fire.” He looked down at his project then back at me and chucked, “Literally.”
I accepted his invitation and, setting my backpack by the door, walked closer. I stood a few feet to his left – close enough to see more clearly, but far enough from the intensity of the furnace to protect me and my clothes. “Hello,” I said. “Whatchya makin?”
“Pick-axe,” he said returning to his work. “Stand back now.” He drew back with his hammer and stuck the glowing metal. The concussion of metal on metal made a ringing sound that was ear-splitting in the small space. With my hands over my ears I watched. To me it just looked like he was flattening a rod of square stock, but what do I know? After several more blows he held the piece up to his face. The crow’s feet around his eyes telegraphed his squint.
“Old tip broke,” he explained. “I should have folded it more, added carbon. This one’ll outlast me,” he chuckled. Then he returned the piece to the inferno behind him.
I noticed a sign on the barn door that, had it been opened, would have announced to passersby that this was Smitty’s Smithshop. Not exactly original, but ok. “Are you Smitty?” I asked. “Is this your shop?”
Without looking up he said, “Yep. Smitty’s more of a nickname, course, but it’s kinda like folks callin’ a doctor Doc.” He let what he’d just said sink into his own brain for a moment, then he chuckled and added, “Come to think of it, I guess those are the only two professions to work like that.” He pulled the rod from the fire again, and repeated the pounding. When the metal had cooled beyond malleability, he returned it to the forge, shoving the rod deeper into the coals and retreated from the heat. He drew a red and white handkerchief from his hip pocket and sopped the sweat from his glistening face.
“Whew!” he said. “I’m certain to go to glory after spending a lifetime at the gates of hell!” He walked to a wooded bucket hanging from a marlin spike. He drew the dipper and took a healthy drink of water. Then he removed his hat and poured another two scoops over his head and on his face. He shook his head like my St. Bernard after a bath. Water exploded from his head. “Care for a bit?” he said, offering the ladle, his beard raining.
“Oh,” I chucked. “No thanks, I’m good. So how long have been doing this?” I asked motioning around the shop.
Smitty took a deep breath and looked up calculating the years. “Well, if yer wonderin how long I been a smitty, that’d be all my life. I apprenticed back in Ohio. I come out here after the war. Seemed right. Arizona was a new territory, and it seemed like a good place to make a fresh start.” A sadness clouded his face. “Such an awful war. So many good men.” He walked back to his furnace. That’s when I noticed his trousers. They were worn, but carefully mended. They were navy blue with a red strip down the outside of each leg. They were tucked inside his boots. They too were worn, but well maintained. They came up to just below his knees. Calvary, I thought. Good outfit. This guy is good. Not only did he have an authentic costume, he even had a cover story. And he was staying in character even after hours.
“That’s a great outfit ya got there,” I said appreciatively. “Where’d you piece that together?” He didn’t seem to hear me. He just went back to his work. Ok, I thought. Keep him in character. “So,” I asked changing the subject. “Tell me more about this axe head. How are you going to make it?”
“Well,” he said brightly. “It’s a pick-axe, which means it needs to withstand forces in multiple directions.”
He continued his work as he explained the basics of metallurgy. The art of tempering, how to determine the temperature of the forge from the color of the coals, advances in iron purification, folding techniques, and so on. “Their pullin’ some good ore from off the rim,” he said motioning toward the north. He seemed to know what he was talking about, though for all I knew he could be full of malarkey. Finally it felt like I’d pushed my luck long enough. He’d not asked me why I was on Village property when they were obviously closed, and I didn’t want to lie if he should ask.
“I had better leave you to your work,” I said, offering him my hand. His grip was strong, and rough. Exactly like you’d expect from a blacksmith. But his hand was cold, as though he’d just pulled it from a bucket of ice. His eyes met mine. There was a distance in them, like looking into a mine shaft. And for the first time, I noticed one eye was severely bloodshot.
“Be safe, Son,” he said. Then he turned back to furnace, and continued his work.
I looked at him, then down at my hand, then back at him. Without another word, I walked back to my bike, and retraced my path to the road. I was almost to the blacktop when I realized that I’d left my backpack at the shop. I turned around and headed back. This time when I entered the Village, I heard the birds and the wind, but no hammering. The shop chimney was smoke-free. I parked my bike as before, then wandered around to the back. My bag was right where I’d left it, but Smitty was gone. I entered the shop. The furnace was stone cold, and sitting on the anvil was a newly forged pick-axe head.
The hairs on my arms tingled. Cautiously, quietly, I slipped back into the sunlight, and quick-stepped back around to the front. My heart felt like it was in my throat. I grabbed my bike and fumbled to board. I was about to push off when I noticed a small sign on the front of the building. It read:
The blacksmith shop. The duties of the blacksmith were paramount to the survival of any frontier community. A broken or worn-out piece couldn’t be ordered through the mail, so it was up to the smith (or smitty as they were often known) to literally keep the town running. As such, blacksmiths were (contrary to Hollywood depictions) well paid and well respected members of the community. This particular blacksmith shop was brought to the Pioneer Village from Wolf Hole, AZ. It belonged to Joseph “Smitty” Longbow. An Ohio transplant and veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic, Smitty died in 1898 when the tip of a pick-axe he was using broke off and flew into his eye. The local doctor succeeded in removing the fragment, but infection set in and after many agonizing days, Smitty succumb to his injuries.
Below the narrative was a grainy, but familiar face. It was Smitty’s burial picture. The fact that the town had cared enough about him to commission his photo said a lot about his standing with the community. My fear left me. I smiled, and on much steadier legs, road away.
A Short Story by Roger Sheehy