Hermit’s Life the Only One for Walter Whittaker

By Ray Elliott

Whatever became of the old-time blacksmith when his skill was no longer in such high demand? When he could no longer, according to Longfellow, "swing his heavy sledge, with measured beat and slow?" Jim Tingley, 74, worked as a blacksmith for almost sixty years, then quietly retired when the time came and now lives on the edge of West Union.

When you first see Tingley, you think he's not exactly the type of blacksmith that Longfellow had in mind. Tingley's a small man with thinning grayish-colored hair and clear blue eyes encircled by wire-framed. glasses. The outlines of his arms through his plaid-patterned cowboy shirt are wide and full. His hands are weathered, and his fingers are thick—more signs verifying: his many years of hard work. Perhaps that little-over-five-foot frame can fool you.

Tingley talked about his blacksmithing days in the living room of his home. He sat on the couch casually as he recalled the farrier's role.

The blacksmith was an important member of the community, much like his modern counterpart, the mechanic. But even more so. People depended on the blacksmith for their survival. He kept the horses and the farm tools in quality condition for work in the fields.

"The blacksmith done about everything you could think of," Tingley said, his arm propped up on the side of the couch and his chin resting on the fist of his hand. "It was an important deal. We built wagon beds an' rebuilt buggies. An’ when cars come out, we even worked on cars—a lot when they first come out. 'Course I just started, an' shortly after I got there, there were some—like when a spring broke or anything. The blacksmith shop took care of everything."

Tingley has been around blacksmith shops since he can remember. When he was thirteen and hung around his uncle's shop, his father used to let him nail a shoe in once in a while. By the time Tingley was fifteen or sixteen, he was working every summer, doing everything from shoeing and plow work to rebuilding wagon wheels.

"I grew up in the shop," Tingley said. "I been in 'em since I was big enough to walk. My father was a blacksmith, an' he worked with my uncle for two years in Casey. Then he went into business for himself in Annapolis. He was down there during the oil boom years ago."

Tingley was born two miles north of Annapolis "at the jog of the road an' the first house over in this (Clark) county." Tingley's actual name is William Wayde. When he was a small boy, his father said he looked like his Uncle Jim so Jim became he nickname. And since then, Tingley has used the name.

"Sometimes people have a hard time findin’ me,” Tingley said and laughed, “’cause a lot o' people here don’t know what my real name is. If you say Jim, well, people know who it is."

People in West Union have known Tingley as Jim for over seventy years. After the time that oil was first located in Porterville, Tingley's father moved from Annapolis to Clarksville. Two years later, when Tingley was three, the family moved to West Union.

Working with his father was something Tingley liked, he said, because they always got along. They used to take turns in the shop; one would fit shoes the first half of the day and the other would drive nails. Tingley said when he first started, he could hardly keep up with his father and the other blacksmiths. He wondered how he was ever going to make a living in the business. But eventually, he was able to work at the same pace.

"Dad wasn't really a big man," Tingley said. "He was taller than me an' weighed about a hundred an' seventy pounds. But he was solid. Men who worked like this would be. It used to tickle me that a lot o' the guys were pretty husky—normally a big man a lot o' times. But if a horse is kind o' cranky or somethin' an' you hold his leg too high, he won't stand still. Had an awful time figurin' out why I could get along with 'em, but I didn't lift the leg so high. If you hold it too high, it'll cramp an' he'll try to get away from ya just like flies bitin' an' trying to get away from them."

Tingley said he didn't always have "good luck." Aside from a little modesty, he did acquire a skill with horses. Sometimes a horse had to be roped to keep him in place. Years ago, however, Tingley cut the reins of his rope and said, "Now if I have to rope a horse, I won't do it." Since then, he said he never let one get away if the owner wanted it shod.

"Sometimes I spend some time with the horse,” he said. "Just about like this time when I was working in Terre Haute, they had a stallion out there that weighed twenty-one hundred an' fifty pounds. It was fly time, an' it was stompin'.

"The man who managed the farm, he tried to shoe him an' he didn't get along with him. Just when we come in, he said, 'Could you shoe that horse, Jim?' An' I said, 'Yeah, I can shoe him.' An' he said, 'What'll it take?' An' I said, 'Some time.' He said, 'You can have all the time you want.'

"I went out there an' spent about, I imagine three hours with him. I was about three hours gettin' the pattern of his foot. The man led the stallion out an' said, 'What do you want me to do?' An' I said, 'Go to the house.' He said, 'What'll you do if he knocks you down?' An' I said, 'He won't knock me down.' I didn't want him around, 'cause if I'm aworkin' on a horse, I want him to watch me. I don't want him to watch somebody else, 'cause something else will take his attention."

A blacksmith is a professional, according to Tingley. At the time he worked, a person had to serve a three-year apprenticeship and then take an examination in order to be licensed. Tingley worked several years as an apprentice to his father before taking the exam.

Later when Tingley bought his father’s shop, he had to get his license. He went to East St. Louis and planned to catch a bus to return home right after the test; otherwise, there wouldn’t be another bus until late in the evening. So Tingley talked with the director of the program and asked if he could take the exam first.

"He said, 'I s'pose'," Tingley said. "They had a horse there, an' the man said, 'Put a front shoe on that horse.' Well, they give you everything but the right thing you want. I use a flat hammer to fit the shoes, but I can use any hammer. I can use a claw hammer if I have to, but I told him about it. I said, 'Now if you think I don't know a claw hammer from a flat hammer, you're crazy. But I'm gonna use this hammer.' So I got my shoe on. Then I went back an' had to take a written examination. Had to study the hoof an' the leg an' know some things about it. An' I had to name all the parts an' things like that."

Other than that, Tingley wasn't often out of his shop. It wasn't unusual for him to work from early morning to early evening each day.

His father continued to work long hours as well. He was 79 when he was killed while still working in the shop. He was sharpening a pair of plow shears on an emery wheel when it broke and pieces of the wheel flew out in all directions. One piece struck a fatal blow to his chest. Although saddened, Tingley continued in the business and eventually finished the plow shears his father had been working on.

Although there were always possibilities for injury in the workshop, the blacksmith took the risks. Many things had to be done to insure that the horses remained workable—from trimming the hoof to making and fitting the shoes.

"One time I went out to a farm an' there was no way out there to fit shoes. The company had a forge in town, an anvil and a place to work, so I went out there an' trimmed the feet an' got a pattern of the foot.

"You set the foot down on a piece of cardboard an' mark around an’ mark where the heel comes off on each side. It's as perfect as you could do with the horse there. Sometimes it was hard to get him to leave his foot down. They'll want to move a little bit. After while, you keep foolin' with him, he'll hold still.

"To trim the hoof, Tingley said you just know how much comes off by looking at it. The inside part of the hoof is sensitive and if the blacksmith trims off too much, the shoe might not stay on.

"A lot o' the old blacksmiths used to cut the bar," Tingley said. "There's a little bar in the horse's foot in the back, kind o’ in back of the frog (the spongy, elastic cushion at the heel of the foot). It’s hoof really, but it’s softer than the outer hoof. Well, they used to take the shoeing knife an' trim them out. Oil accumulates from the frog an' gets sent through the bars an’ goes to the outer hoof to keep it. If you cut 'em out, the outer hoof dries out."

After the hoof is trimmed, it is ready to be shod. Tingley used to keep kegs of standard, plain horseshoes and then worked them to a custom fit. He did make the brake shoes, using ten to twelve-foot-long iron bars of different weight.

"Oh, it's been a lot o' years since we used them," Tingley said. “When you get into high-priced horses, now I mean really good ones, shoes are made just like false teeth. You order the shoe for the horse. An' that's something else—you never guage to trim a foot. When you get into race horses and the guage, well, it's kind o' like a and comes back on top of the hoof. You g¢t the. picture of the foot, and it has little numbers on it. A trainer will decide when a horse's pattern fits.

"When the trainer decides what picture of the foot you use, you have to trim the toe down. It makes the horse break over maybe too late or too early. Breaking over means that when he is travelling, it's when his foot comes up off the ground. A fast horse, if he's got too much toe and it makes him break a little bit late, it will slow him down. If he breaks too quick, it'll do the same thing. Both feet are the same. They have to be. And both rear feet. I never just fooled around with them 'cause if you watch a horse, you know what foot is best."

Tingley's work was mostly with the horses that were a part of everyday life. It wasn't important so much to make a horse run faster; the main concern was that the horse be in good health, particularly the feet. The biggest problem the blacksmith had to tend to was gravel. Horses would get pieces of gravel lodged between the outside and the soft part of the hoof. If the gravel was embedded too deeply to get it out, it worked through and came out the top of the foot.

“When that happens, you’ll have a lame horse for a year. Every once in a while, we’d cut in and get the rock out. Just a little tiny piece of gravel, you know.

“My grandfather was shot in the Civil War, in the hip. They didn't operate on him like they do now. A piece of that bullet worked out the top of one of his toes when he was 70 years old. Something like that, it'll move. It won't hold still. The rock will start up in the foot, an' if it gets up a little ways, it's like a splinter under your fingernail—it becomes irritated in a few days. So after you cut into the bottom to get them, you pack the foot an' treat it an' the horse will get well in just a little bit."

Another problem that often occurred was treating foundered horses. Tingley said a horse became foundered when he hasn't had any grain; so when he does eat it, he eats so much that he swells. Then as the horse gets over it, his feet grow out of shape.

"He'll get to where he'll walk on his heels to keep off his feet," Tingley said. "I always burned them with hot shoes, just scorched 'em good, an’ let them go two weeks an' work on them again. You patch their feet with hot tar an' make them shed out. Finally you get the horse where he's back on his feet in pretty good shape.

"I had one from Arcola brought down here. A kid's horse, eleven years old, was foundered. He'd been walkin' on his heels. Boy, his feet turned up. But I got him back on his feet pretty good."

After taking so much time to make sure each horse had the proper care, it seems ironic that Tingley injured his hip when he fell off a ridge while deer hunting a few years ago. Although he received chiropractic treatments regularly, he had another fall that injured his hip again. It had to be partly removed and replaced with a plastic hip joint. As a result, one leg is two inches longer than the other.

"I thought that doctor ought to go back to the third grade an' learn how to read a rule,” Tingley said. “But he’s not the only one. I heard a lot of people have it, maybe not this bad. A little bit don't mean anythin'. Now, these shoes are built up a little, but they don't near do it. I had some shoes . . ."

Tingley got up and walked into the other room. He returned a minute later with a pair of brown leather shoes. Holding them with the bottoms turned up, he showed where the one shoe had a thicker sole that was built up with cork. When he set the shoes on the floor in front of the couch, the difference was barely noticeable.

"He made me pretty lopsided,'' Tingley said. "An' that's a bad deal. If a blacksmith done some kind o' thing wrong on a horse, it'd have lockjaw an’ die.”

When a horse's leg was badly injured, he was shot to end the misery. But Tingley doesn’t seem to be miserable. The experience and insight Tingley has acquired over the years seems to have served him well. You'd think he was the very man that Longfellow had in mind.