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Forging history in the blacksmith shop at Ocala's historic Fort King

A man stands beside a historic replica of a blacksmith shop.
Joe Byrnes
Keith Hill stands beside the blacksmith shop at the Fort King National Historic Landmark in Ocala.

OCALA -- On Saturday, more than a dozen blacksmiths with the Florida Artist Blacksmith Association will haul their forges -- on trailers and truck beds -- to the blacksmith shop at the Fort King National Historic Landmark.

It’s called a Hammer In. They’ll showcase their skills, celebrate their craft and demonstrate metal work from when the fort was active in the 1830s and '40s.

Keith Hill of Ocklawaha will be among them. At the fort, he has made a special effort to keep the history and the art of blacksmithing alive.

A man works a bellows in the blacksmith shop at Fort King.
Joe Byrnes
Keith Hill said he gets children to work the bellows at the blacksmith shop during demonstrations.

Earlier this month, Hill fired the forge, worked the bellows and hammered out nails on the anvil during an interview at the blacksmith shop.

He has a passion for blacksmithing that started with his grandfather and a childhood visit to Colonial Williamsburg.

"I got so excited about watching the blacksmith heat metal up … that otherwise, if it didn't have heat in it, it wouldn't move," he said. "You heat it up and it's like magic."

The 59-year-old went on -- after careers in law enforcement and landscaping -- to become a skilled bladesmith. He's known for winning two "Forged in Fire" competitions on the History Channel.

"And it's just a very satisfying feeling," he said of working as a bladesmith. "After many, many hours of working and toiling and sweating and bleeding, that you've made something, you've made something tangible to hold."

Employed by Dinkins Construction last year, he oversaw completion of blacksmith shop, a narrow two-story building of bare cypress, striving to make it as authentic as possible.

He heated and shaped its 2,000 nails and the hinges for its doors and windows. He asked the archaeologists for help and studied old buildings.

A man's hands hold a handmade nail.
Joe Byrnes
The nails that Keith Hill makes in the blacksmith shop are coated with melted beeswax.

"You can't go to the store and buy these," he said. "You have to make every single piece."

Ocala’s current Fort King is a reconstruction of the site’s second U.S. Army fort, which was built here in 1837 during the seven-year-long Second Seminole War.

Archaeologists with Gulf Archaeology Research Institute found evidence of where a blacksmith shop once stood outside the fort walls and created a report on the shop itself.

"When it was time to reconstruct the fort, we started doing some intensive work on the hilltop," said Michelle Sivilich, the institute's executive director. "And we came across an area where we had a lot of coal and slag and clinker, which are the byproducts of blacksmithing."

Sivilich said that, if the fort had an official blacksmith, that was great. Or a farrier or other skilled individual could have done the work.

"I think we've had some hints that maybe some of the enslaved individuals might have been serving as blacksmith," she added.

The job was absolutely essential, Hill said. "If something breaks, who's going to fix it? The blacksmith. Who's going to put shoes on the horses? The blacksmith. Who's going to make or repair the weaponry, knives, swords, rifles?

Hammer In and history

- The Ocala Recreation and Parks Department is hosting the ‘Hammer In,’ a free event at Fort King, on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

- The national historic landmark is at 3925 E. Fort King St. in Ocala.

- There are many other events listed, as well, on the Fort King Heritage Foundation website.

Hill said he was a sheriff's deputy for 20 years -- a SWAT team member who worked at Ground Zero -- and a lot of times people were not so glad to see him.

"[N]ow I get to be the blacksmith," he said. "And people love to see me."

Hill said that during demonstrations he gets kids to work the bellows, an accordion-like funnel beside the brick forge that forces air into it and heats the charcoal.

He said it's "a great, great education for the modern kid." Hill tells them to imagine being a blacksmith’s child.

"[Y]ou would be in this blacksmith shop for 12, 14, 16 hours a day pushing these bellows. Do you think you have an easy life right now?" Hill said. "And the parents are like, ‘Yes!’

He said many of the children -- though not all -- are fascinated by the sights and sounds of the forge.

"I allow the kids to come in and use the hammer and just start hitting little, little tiny little bits, and they'll make nails with me," he said. After they're done hitting it, I’ll make another nail, and I’ll give it to them. … And they'll probably have that for the rest of their life and when they're adults and start looking at it, like, I remember that."

Just as he treasures the memory of Williamsburg 50 years ago.

Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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