Garvin man demonstrates lost art form at museum
Ron Boje pounds some hot metal over an anvil. Photo by Scott Thoma
A plume of smoke from the cigar clenched between Ron Boje’s teeth circles his head like a wreath as he hammers a red-hot horseshoe against an anvil that slowly evolves into a handled knife.
“I really enjoy making things like this,” said Boje as he removed his pioneer-type hat to wipe the perspiration off his forehead. “Someone once asked me where I went to school to learn how to do this, and I just laughed because I learned all this myself.”
Boje, 64, is a modern-day blacksmith who volunteers at the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum on the west edge of Tracy in the southwest portion of the state.
“Ron is a blessing for the museum,” said Bill Jo Lau, Wheels Across the Prairie treasurer. “I am so grateful for having him stop by one hot day in August of 2016 to see the museum. He loved the blacksmith shop so much.”
Boje can be often found in the museum’s blacksmith shop that sits amid other pioneer buildings on the museum grounds: a schoolhouse, church, post office, barber shop, log cabin home and train depot to name a few.
Boje first began performing blacksmith-like duties at the horse farm he and his late wife used to own around the Mankato area.
“I made a lot of my own rings, harnesses fittings and things like that for my horses,” he said. “So I asked (museum board members) if they wanted me to make some things in the blacksmith shop at the museum, and this is my second year here now.”
Boje looks the part of a blacksmith with his long graying beard and mustache, the stogie protruding from his mouth that automatically forces his eyes to squint with each puff in order to limit the amount of smoke sneaking into them. His voice is raspy, he still rides horse, and his attire shadows those worn in yesteryear with canvas-type pants held up by leather suspenders and cowboy boots.
But he didn’t intentionally grow into the role of a blacksmith; rather, the role grew into him.
“This is just the way I always look,” he laughed. “It was the way I looked the day I visited here a couple years ago when I rode horse into town from Garvin where I live, and then ended up volunteering to help at the museum.”
Boje grew up in Appleton in western Minnesota and moved around the state frequently before finally settling in the Tracy area. He was a welder for 35 years in the Mankato area while at the same time raising and selling quarter horses with his wife.
Boje’s wife passed away 12 years ago, and he eventually went to work for Ag Chem Equipment Co. in Jackson before moving to Tracy three years ago and then to Garvin, six miles west of Tracy, two years ago.
“I ride horse from my place in Garvin to Tracy to be in the Labor Day parade,” said Boje before sliding the cooled-off horseshoe back into the hot coals. “I stopped at the museum on my way back home because I like historic things, and I guess I opened my big mouth and offered to volunteer. I really liked the blacksmith shop because it had a lot of things that I had already worked with when I raised horses and made my own things.”
The blacksmith shop was giving way to the ages and was kept locked for safety precautions. There was even talk of having the shop torn down.
“The roof supports were rotting, but I wanted to keep this original building so I repaired it,” he said. “It was originally built in 1873. It’s good for another 100 years now.”
Ron Boje is at home in the blacksmith shop at Wheels Across the Prairie Museum near Tracy. Boje especially answers questions from kids, many of whom have never seen a blacksmith in action. Photo by Scott Thoma
Last summer, many visitors to the museum watched Boje as he creatively “flamed” the double doors on the blacksmith shop with a torch to make the grain stand out for a more authentic look.
Boje’s talents can be viewed at the museum in the forms of the various things he’s hammered into useful items.
“Can you tell what these are made from?” he asked proudly while laying down a set of thick steak knives with spiral-shaped handles. After pausing a few moments for a response, he tosses down an old railroad spike. “That’s what they started out as.”
“I had to get the fire to 3,000 degrees (Fahrenheit) to be able to get the railroad spike hot enough so I could twist the handles like that,” he continued. “It’s white heat. The metal gets so hot at that temperature that it turns white instead of red.”
Boje also makes many knives out of an old horseshoe, making the handle out of one half and the other half is honed down to a sharp blade.
“That’s my favorite thing I make,” he said, referring to the horseshoe cutlery. “I make a lot of different types of knives, but that’s my favorite. I sharpen all the knives I make by hand.”
Boje is also proficient in working with leather, making such things as sheaths for his knives.
Pictured right are knives that Bjoe made out of railroad stakes. Photo by Scott Thoma
He’s also made knives out of large metal files, napkin holders out of horseshoes, and shepherd’s hooks out of various pieces of metal.
“If someone asks me to make something, I’ll try to make it for them,” he said.
Currently, he is working on a long-handled knife and blade out of a piece of a 4-foot piece of rebar.
“I enjoy what I do and really enjoy seeing the kids come and watch me work,” he said. “I like it when the kids ask questions because then I know what I’m doing is interesting to them.”
And regulars to the museum can always tell from the parking lot if Boje is busy in his blacksmith shop by the sounds of his hammer and the smell of him stoking the fire.
“We couldn’t be happier that he is here,” said Lau. “Ron has a gift. He loves what he does, and people love it as well.”