By Lily Kongslien
Special to the Star Journal
You find Bill Kaul presenting the craft of blacksmithing to eager audiences, young and old, at the Logging Museum or the Historical Society Museum or any place where he has been asked to give his “hands-on” demonstration. He combines the art of blacksmithing and teaching, and you will never come away from his sessions without feeling that you have been in the presence of a great teacher and craftsman.
Bill was born in Beaver Dam in the early ‘30s the oldest of three children. Having been taught the principles of hard work, he was in the sheet metal trade for two and a half years until Uncle Sam called him into service for his country in 1952.
After his discharge two years later, he spent another year working, then decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at Stout University for a four-year course in industrial arts (metal work).
Graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree, he applied for a teaching position at Rhinelander Union High School and was hired by Ced Vig. In 1994, Bill retired after 36 years of teaching industrial arts at RHS.
It is evident that bill has always enjoyed doing things by hand. “I believe it helps to put a piece of your soul into the project,” he explained. When, after his retirement as an educator, he began to read up on the blacksmithing craft, he accumulated the necessary tools and built a forge complete with anvil, tongs, tools, bellows and blower and hand-cranked fan.
“The history of blacksmithing goes back many years in this country,” said Bill. “In early pioneering days, every community eventually had a blacksmith, who was needed for the repair and making of machinery on the farms. Some of the farmers learned blacksmithing themselves.”
In settlements and towns the blacksmith was called upon to make utensils, log chains, iron parts for sleighs and wagons, tools and knives. Bill makes it clear that a smith who makes horseshoes is a farrier, not a blacksmith.
Bill has researched his field of blacksmithing very well. “In the 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog you could send for many blacksmith accessories,” he said. “There were three pages of forges, anvils, tongs and tools that could be mail ordered.”
Nails fashioned by the blacksmith were very important as our country expanded westward. “The first ‘nailing machine’ was invented in 1790,” said Bill, “but the blacksmith still was called upon to make the forged nails. The hand-made iron nails made by the blacksmith were stronger and held wood together more effectively than the machine-made cut nails.”
Bill explained that the blacksmith was the original recycler. “As our country grew,” Bill said, “recycling of iron became necessary.” Iron hinges, with the blacksmith’s expertise, could change into useful candle holder, and small tools were formed out of small pieces of discarded iron. During World War II there were many iron “drives,” as at that time in history this metal was recycled and reused for defense purposes.
Not only was the blacksmith necessary in every community (most towns and cities boasted of several), there were also the coopers who made buckets, the gunsmith who made and repaired guns, the wheelwright who made wheels for wagons and buggies, candle makers, soap makers and woodworkers who made cabinets and furniture. But for each of these, the blacksmith made the tools necessary for that particular craft.
By the way, the meaning of the word blacksmith is a person who works with “hot” iron (iron is black in color), and a whitesmith is one who works with “cold” metal and makes tin articles such as cups, strainers and utensils.
Here in northern Wisconsin in the logging camps, there was usually a blacksmith who made and repaired all the tools and made necessary repairs on sleighs, wagons and hauling equipment. The logging days would not have been possible if not for the dedicated blacksmiths who worked with the loggers to harvest the rich forest products. In the Logging Museum at Pioneer Park, there is a replica of a blacksmith shop.
As Bill travels about to give his demonstrations, he hauls his equipment with him and sets it up on the grounds. This includes his anvil, forge, tongs, vise, hammers, and his quenching bucket. “The hot metal is placed in the water in the quenching bucket to cool off,” Bill explained. “And each time this is done, a certain amount of minerals remains in the water. It was believed that this water then had healing qualities.”
Also, it is told that as the anvil is used to form the hot iron into a desired shape, every seventh blow on the anvil will get rid of evil spirits and also bring good luck.
Bill has other hobbies now that he is retired from his long career in education. Besides his blacksmithing demonstrations, he is active in Gideon’s International and in Family Partners, and his Blue Grass music show at WXPR Public Radio in Rhinelander is a favorite of many listeners. His future plans include continuing his blacksmith teaching at museums, and School of the Arts, craft fairs and wherever he is asked to give demonstrations on his special craft.
We learned in grade school a poem called “The Village Blacksmith.” I quote it in part and hope to leave you with more respect for the craft of blacksmithing that has helped to hold this country together – figuratively and literally.
Under the spreading chestnut tree
the village smithy stands.
The smith, a mighty man he is,
with strong and sinewy hands…