Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Today, people are rediscovering the value. beauty and utility of crafted items, qualities which our forefathers knew weU. Older gen­erations quickly came to appreciate the skills of craftsmen and relied upon the quality of their work. Of all the artisans, however, the blacksmith, per­haps, was the most respected. His workplace was an essential part of every community and neighborhood, offering the combined services of the welding shop. service station and hard­ware store.

This reminiscence, centering around one such blacksmith working in early twentieth-century Harrisburg, is espe­cially complete and appealing, since the memoir details the organization of the shop. the tools used and techniques applied, and the culture of the sur­rounding neighborhood. The subject of Mrs. Florence Rabuck’s reflection is her father, Christian Frederick Koch (Fred), who ran a shop at 2110 North Seventh Street in the capital city. He bad learned his trade in Germany, passed stringent exams and was certified a blacksmith. Upon his arrival in Harrisburg, he worked with another smith until setting up his own shop in the 1890s where he worked with only one assistant and whomever he could get to help from the family.

He was a farrier (a smith who shoes horses and works with related equip­ment) – a small businessman. During the latter part of the nineteenth cen­tury and early into the twentieth, blacksmiths were farriers first and general blacksmiths second for by this time, much of the smith’s material was pre-manufactured.

Fred Koch was a part of Harris­burg’s turn-of-the-century skilled work­ing class which resided in certain sec­tions of town. The old Eighth Ward directly behind the Capitol and a slice of the Seventh and Tenth which ran north adjacent to the railroad tracks were heavily working class. Here rail­roaders, butchers, brewers, cigar­makers, saloon owners and black­smiths had their shops and provided services to the city. These were often set in run-down but congenial neigh­borhoods with streets crowded at all hours of the day and night.

Despite the fact that the shop was dim and ill-lit, smelling of oakum (hemp fiber), dirt, sweat and sawdust, it was especially modern for it was outfitted with stocks which held the horses in place for shoeing. Yet, Koch’s shop in Harrisburg was more than it seemed. It also served as a center for the swapping of news and became a hub of sociability for the neighborhood.

This ended in 1923 when Mr. Koch gave up his business. After selling his shop, Fred Koch’s life changed dra­matically and he had a difficult time making ends meet. Although he rented properties he had built, he had a troublesome time collecting the back rent. In 1936, during the Depression, he died al the age of seventy-five.

Reflections of a Blacksmith’s Daughter

After my father had gotten enough money together in the 1890s, he found somebody that had enough con­fidence in him to go on a note for him. That’s how he got the money to buy and build the shop at 2110 North Seventh Street. And at the time that he bought the ground, that part of Harrisburg wasn’t in the city; it was in Susquehanna Township. It was taken in to the city I guess not loo long after he bought it because in the early part of the 1900s is when they put the sewer in and we were hooked onto the sewer.

My father shod horses when horses were the most popular means of trans­portation. But he was an all-around mechanic. He could do anything in the line of repairing steel or making anything out of steel or iron and he would do what anybody would bring him to repair besides just horseshoeing.

I had to be his third pair of hands. When l was growing up I spent a lot of time in the shop. In the summer time­ – to keep the horses from twitching around from the flies – I’d have to keep switching the flies off the horses’ legs with a horse tail nailed to a stick of wood when he shod them so they’d stand still. I’d also have to help him temper picks. He would be working with them at the fire and I would have to watch them change color so that I could dip them in the water. And I ran the drill press; I had to punch drill holes in pieces of metal.

At the time I was anywhere from about eight to twelve years old. I was the only one at home for quite a while because the rest had all grown up and left. My brother went west when I was just a baby.

My father was well known in Harris­burg because he had these stocks in the shop where he could shoe unruly horses and I think he was the only blacksmith in the city that could do that kind of thing, take care of them. So of course anybody that had a horse that was hard to shoe always brought him to him. And in the winter time he did an awful lot of sharpening ice skates for people. You know. at that time they didn’t wear too many shoe skates; they wore the kind that clamped on your shoes and everybody used to bring their skates for my dad to sharp­en because he always did such a good job on them. And so he was well known as far as the business was con­cerned.

But he worked long hours. In those days he was often down in the shop by five-thirty (A.M.) and worked until six or seven o’clock in the evening. Especially in the winter time when it was snowy, if he had a lot of horses that had to have their shoes shod and had to have caulks in their shoes; why, it was a long day for him.

Let me explain how to shoe a horse. When you bought a horseshoe it was made perfectly straight. There were no heels or toes on the shoe. And then he’d have to turn up the ends of the shoes to make the heel and would have to weld a bar of steel on the front of the shoe – which was called the toe. That would keep the horse from slip­ping on the macadam when they walked through the streets. And then in the winter time when it was icy he would put caulks in the shoes where the heels were and they were pointed. And that would dig into the ice and keep the horse from slipping. And then too, he also treated the horses with sore feet. If a horse sometimes would get a sore foot – maybe a horse would pick up something foreign in his hoof and it would become infected and cause him to maybe fester – then he would put what they called tar and oakum on. And tar was just black tar and he’d smear that on the hoof and then the oakum was brown in color and you could pull it apart like hair. And then he would put that on top of the tar and then on top of that would go a rubber pad. Then he would put the shoe on and then that would be what healed the hoof and also protected the hoof from getting any foreign sub­stance or anything in it. And he used to do quite a bit of that kind of repair work. At that time all he got for put­ting four new shoes on a horse was a dollar and a half.

In the winter time when he worked in the shop and there was cold weather, he always used to come up to the house and take a wine glass full that was called schnapps. There was some kind of herbs in an envelope in a packet. And I don’t know what kind of herbs they were, but he would put those herbs in liquor, in a bottle. I guess he mixed up a quart at a time, but it was always there when he wanted to drink it. And that he always drank in the winter time because that was to build up his reserve that he didn’t catch cold. See, he was down in the shop and there was no heat in the shop. The only heat he got was when he worked at the forge. So when it was real cold he always used to come up in the morning – I remember ’cause he would get up early and have breakfast early – maybe mid­-morning he’d come up and have a glass of schnapps.

And of course he always drank beer. We were always taught to drink beer with the meal. He never drank beer if he didn’t eat something with it. It was never overdone.

And there used to be people down there at the Broad Street Market that made good Limburger cheese and we’d buy a brick of Limburger cheese and we’d have fresh rye bread and Limburger cheese. And at that time we only lived about a block from Maple Grove Hotel, which was at Sixth and Maclay. And my dad would take the dinner bucket like the men used to carry their lunches in and he’d go to the hotel and get a dinner bucket full of beer. And that would be our Satur­day dinner. And then, of course, we were always given a small glass of beer if we wanted it.

That was just a part of our family Jiving you might say. Of course my mother was a great baker. She baked her own bread and her own cinnamon rolls. And at Christmas time she would make the raised breads that they make in the old country – Switzerland, you know. And she’d make what they called Schnitzbrought, that was some­thing like fruitcake only it wasn’t as heavy. It was made with a yeast dough, see, and then all the fruits and nuts would be in it. It was a raised dough. That was delicious. And then there was a thing that she called berawacka. You rolled out your raised dough, and that was like a sweet dough like you made for rolls and you were supposed to use pearsnits. . . . [They] were made like applesnits only instead of apples they were pears that were dried … add raisins and brown sugar and she’d cook that ’til it was thick and that was the filling and then she’d spread this over the raised dough and roll it up like a jelly roll.

When we moved to 2110 N. Seventh Street, there were few houses above Maclay Street. I know when my father first lived in back of the shop there was a big vacant lot on Jefferson Street which was right in back of us. And Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus used to pitch their tents there and hold the circus there. Where William Penn and Camp Curtin Junior High School were, that was all vacant ground up there and that was what we called Huffman’s Woods and that’s where they used to hold the circus, up in that section. I can remem­ber when they did that. That must have been around 1914 or 1915 that they had the circus.

When my father died he was seventy-five and he was about sixty­-two when he gave up his shop and they lived in Paxtonia. He lived in Paxtonia for thirteen years, from the time he retired from the shop ’til the time he died. And he really had a rough time of it because like I say, he wasn’t getting the rent for his properties. People just didn’t have the money. They couldn’t pay it. And then we kept the properties for ten years after he died, but we put it in the hands of a real estate person and left him collect the rent. They always got the money. My dad wouldn’t do that, see.

It was going to run into a lot of money to keep them up (the proper­ties) and we weren’t really getting that much rent. We were only getting may­be eighteen, twenty dollars a month a house. So that’s why we decided to get rid of them. We only got I think $8,000 for the whole kit and caboodle. We sold the property that our house stood on and the shop. But he owned the ground from the alley up to where the row of houses started on Seventh Street.

I don’t know when it was that we had a high wind storm and it blew all the fronts of these six houses on Seventh Street-and they were brick houses. It never touched the black­smith shop that was still standing there. And that was made out of wood that looked as if it was ready to fall down. And we wondered why the wind could take these brick houses down and not bother the shop. But we found out when we took the shop down, my dad had made the nails for that shop and they had barbs on them. And the big girders that held the frame­work of the shop – that was all held together with these big nails with barbs on ’em. That’s why the wind didn’t take the shop down. And it endured and the brick didn’t….

Postscript

With the demolition of the black­smith shop, a way of life had passed. People such as Fred Koch had passed from the scene too. Few drink schnapps anymore. and Limburger cheese is more a quaint curiosity than a real staple of anyone’s diet.

The decline of a way of life also signaled the physical decline of the neighborhood near Seventh and Ma­clay. The homes are dilapidated, the living is more difficult, and occasional­ly strong winds still rip buildings loose. But Fred Koch’s home stands proudly in the alley down from Seventh Street, with new aluminum siding and freshly painted eves and trim. The interior of the home is neatly arranged. The play­ground next door echoes with the shouts of Black children playing and the calls of their parents urging them home for supper. Though working people have no monuments nor markers to honor them, the products of their craftsmanship are still there to serve as inspirations for those work­ing and struggling today.

 

Rose Levonian, Director of the Boyd Memorial Center, a senior citizen center sponsored by the Pine Street Presbyterian Church, Harrisburg, was most helpful in permitting interviews with Florence Rabuck making this article possible. Appreciation is also due to Cathryn McElroy, Curator at the William Penn Memorial Museum, who arranged for the photographs of the miniature blacksmithing imple­ments.

 

Florence Koch Rabuck still lives in Harrisburg, although no longer behind 2110 North Seventh Street. Presently, she works for Retired Senior Volun­teer Programs as an employee of the Easter Seal Society and attends pro­grams at the Boyd Memorial Center daily.

 

Nicolette Murray earned her B.A. degree with a major in history at West Chester State College. In 1976-77, she served as an Oral History Program Assistant at the PHMC and developed an interviewing program at Harrisburg’s senior citizen centers. Mrs. Rabuck’s interview is one of the results of her work. Currently, she is a graduate student in history at Murray State University, Kentucky.