Hawley man has been working with hot metal most of his life
By Deb Trygstad, M.S.
“Life’s a forge! Yes, and hammer and anvil, too! You’ll be roasted, smelted, and pounded, and you’ll scarce know what’s happening to you. But stand boldly to it! Metal’s worthless till it’s shaped and tempered! More labor than luck. Face the pounding, don’t fear the proving; and you’ll stand well against any hammer and anvil.” Lloyd Alexander, Author, Taran Wanderer (1967)
What makes a person interesting is their passion, pursuing what they love to do and finding a way to make it a reality. For Douglas Swenson of rural Hawley, Minnesota, that passion was blacksmithing which came to him from his great grandfather, a Swedish immigrant who settled in Goose Prairie Township in Clay County, Minnesota.
When Doug was born in 1959, the art of blacksmithing was becoming extremely rare. A blacksmith creates objects from wrought iron or steel by forging the metal, using tools to hammer, bend and cut.
He grew up on a farm near Hitterdal on land his family has lived on in Goose Prairie Township since 1886. Doug’s great grandfather from Sweden settled there and developed a pretty good-sized farm.
“It used to be every single town had a blacksmith. People had to be self-sufficient back in the 1880-1890s,” he said.
Doug’s family created their own forge on the farm. Horsepower did most of the work and there was a need for a forge to repair horse drawn implements, plows, tools and other equipment. The horse and the blacksmith have always had a very strong relationship,” Doug said. His father continued the family business of farming but that line of work was to die out with his generation. No one in Doug’s family (one brother and three sisters) remained in agriculture. Despite this, most of his siblings have pursued craftsmanship. His brother became an extremely skilled cabinet maker, and his sister makes beautiful jewelry. Doug remained living on the homestead.
Doug’s first memory concerning blacksmithing took place when he was very young, perhaps around age 7, when he went to town with his dad to a blacksmith shop in Ulen, Minn. His dad had brought something into the shop to be repaired.
“I remember the forge going and the bright flames. The blacksmith took something out of the fire that was yellow hot, and he took it to the anvil and hammered on it, and I guess that really stuck in my mind. The brightness and the fire and working with the anvil. A little bit later I realized that we had that equipment on our farm. It was just sitting there, actually just sitting outside.”
His dad helped Doug rebuild the forge so he could use it and his love of smithing began. He was about nine years old. His parents never thought that being a blacksmith was a good idea, as it was very obsolete, a forgotten thing of the past. But his parents were always very supportive of doing something new and different.
“One day we will all cherish the memory of having blacksmiths on every corner.”
George Singleton, Author
At that time in 1968, the blacksmith shop was almost gone and no one ever expected it to be of importance again or of any interest to anyone.
“As a child, initially I was just trying to figure out how to get the fire in the forge and get something hot,” he remembered. “Then I went on to do simple things. I made a fair number of tools in the shop that I still use today. In high school, I would make something and my parents were quite amazed.”
He learned how to complete projects, mostly on his own through trial and error, although his Dad did help him some. Very few people back then knew anything about it. Most people who did were elderly and many had passed on. While attending college at Moorhead State University he got a chance to visit a few small towns where shops with elderly blacksmiths were still open.
“I got to visit a fair number of them and learn about what they did,” he said. It gave him a good basis of what it was like working in a small town blacksmith shop in the 1920s and 1930s.
Doug got really busy after high school and left the forge behind to pursue a job in the real world, ending up at Boston University to get a degree in physical therapy. He has been a practicing physical therapist for 36 years, still working part time at a nursing home in Wadena. He and his wife, Sue, had four children. During that time, there were some long stretches where he was unable to get into the shop except for here and there, now and then. But even though he did not practice it as much as he wanted, the love of blacksmithing stayed with him. He always looked forward to the time he could get into the shop again. Most of the things he created he did as a hobby and gifts for family and friends.
Doug’s interest in Viking Age blacksmithing started when he was approached by individuals at the Heritage Hjemkomst to recreate Viking artifacts for the Midwest Viking Festival held in Moorhead each June. From a historical aspect, he wanted to recreate these artifacts using the same methods and similar tools.
“For these events, we try to reenact as closely as we can, age appropriate dress and methods of doing different crafts and activities,” he said. “We try to cook appropriate meals that were common at that time. There is a Viking Age forge and a small blacksmith shop. They found out how to recreate this forge, scale and size, because of a carving on a wooden church door from Norway and then a runestone carving in Sweden that had survived.”
From historical evidence discovered, Doug said during that period of time in history, the blacksmiths probably traveled from one place to another. The farm would have their own forge and the blacksmith would bring his tools, stay at the farm and complete the tasks assigned. In the Viking Age, the forge was made of clay and was very simple but effective.
Doug has demonstrated at the Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Bonanzaville in West Fargo, the Swedish American Institute in Minneapolis, the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, and Viking Age reenactment festivals throughout the region such as Midwest Viking festival in Moorhead and Høst Fest in Minot. Most of the works Doug creates are Viking artifacts for reenactments. He said when archaeologists dig out the items they are very well documented with precise pictures and specification of each find. It can be difficult to recreate at times because of the lack of homogeneous materials back then. For example, wrought iron is pretty much obsolete. The materials are so vastly improved today. He has shipped his Viking recreations to places all over the world like Australia, Denmark and England.
Blacksmiths have been traced back to the Roman empire. Some of the tools used back then are the same that are used today. Doug said there really is very little written history about the profession of blacksmithing. The closest he found was an Icelandic Saga written 200 to 300 years after the Viking period. They have to piece together the life of a blacksmith at the time of the Vikings by archaeological finds from burials sites and old villages and townsites. The majority of the Viking finds were from wealthy people because they had the expensive items made of bronze and other hardy metals. The life of an everyday farmer or fisherman in that time period is still somewhat of a mystery.
Doug said blacksmithing is making a comeback. He has received many different grants and been able to work with some really highly skilled people. The first trip he went to was the Nordic Blacksmith Championships in Iceland. There he met a lot of Scandinavian blacksmiths from Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
“In Europe,” he said, “there are many professional practicing blacksmiths with formal schools with testing for competencies. This championship had categories of apprentices, journeymen, much more serious tradesman and some extremely skilled people still working in this profession.”
Through another grant, Doug was able to go to Oakland, Calif., to study Viking age axe making. Then he went to London, England for a month and learned about traditional blades of the late Iron Age. Three years ago, he also received a grant from Cargill to go to Sweden. There, he studied under two master blacksmiths and learned to set up the Viking Age shop, the forge, the bellows and the anvil. In Sweden, he actually lived with the blacksmith’s families. Most recently he also had an opportunity to go to Dublin, Ireland, which was actually founded as a Viking age settlement and has tremendous history.
In his shop in rural Hawley called Goose Valley Forge, Doug tried to recreate the time period from 1885-1910. His forge is made of cast iron. He teaches students in his shop including 4-Hers, Scout groups and homeschooled high school students. Learning about blacksmithing can be included as part of a history lesson, or history of technology. The youngest student he had was a nine-year-old girl who made some neat projects. He said six and seventh graders seem most interested. He has been mentoring a 15 year student who has developed a passion for the craft and he has also had a number of formal adult students through grants from the North Dakota Arts Council. These students should be able to set up their own shops someday. Doug said that there is now a tremendous interest in renewing this craft; perhaps because of people’s sedentary life in front of a computer, they are just looking for this creative outlet.
What’s next for Doug? He just got another grant from the American Scandinavian foundation so he will be going back to Denmark and Sweden hopefully later on this year to study. He wrote the grant so he could specifically study the agricultural tools and implements that would have been used during the Viking Age. He plans on doing a study of the artifacts and museums there and hopefully forging and reproducing some of these items. He will then be able to bring back this experience to share and teach about when he returns to the United States. “I truly enjoy the teaching,” he said.
For Doug, his passion was uncovered by finding an old forge on his family farm and pursuing the almost lost art of being a blacksmith. This journey has taken him to places he might never have gone. He has developed relationships with other blacksmiths around the world, and has been able to recreate his family origin and roots and resurrect part of history through fire and air.
Of the four elements: air, earth, water, and fire; Man stole only one from the gods. Fire. And with it, man forged his will upon the world.”