August 12, 2013

Master blacksmith vows to forge ahead

Sam Smith, a purist who toils in a historic Portland workshop, faces an uncertain future following a waterfront real estate deal.

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Simply finding the place is like a trip back in time.

click image to enlarge

Sam Smith pauses Wednesday in the Portland Forge, his burgeoning business in the Portland Company Complex. The complex was recently sold and Smith’s lease will expire in March.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

In his forge on the Portland waterfront, master blacksmith Sam Smith pounds, bends and shapes molten steel to make custom-ordered, hand-wrought items the way his predecessors did in the 19th century. Click below to take a look inside the Portland Forge at the tools of Smith’s unusual trade.

Walk between the decaying brick warehouses where steam locomotives rumbled to life more than a century ago, past the tall windows with peeling paint, through the alley and just beyond a crumbled brick chimney until you reach a heavy wooden door. Hear the clang, clang, clang?

Yes, he will tell you, his name really is Sam Smith, and yes, he really is a master blacksmith.

Inside his dim, soot-covered shop, the 29-year-old has for five months quietly stoked interest in his burgeoning business, the Portland Forge. Built like a steel-strap barrel and with coal-colored hair and a commanding voice, Smith also has built a reputation for being perhaps the only master blacksmith in Maine who insists on exclusively working in 19th-century techniques.

But his home in the historic workshop -- where railroad and steamship parts were first struck from molten steel and iron more than 150 years ago -- is on borrowed time.

The shop is tucked away in building 16 of the Portland Company Complex, the 10-acre waterfront property that until recently was owned by Phineas Sprague Jr. and housed his business, Portland Yacht Services Inc., and a sprinkling of other commercial and nonprofit enterprises. But with the sale of the valuable land to a Yarmouth developer in late July, the future of Smith's business may be in doubt.

"It feels like a level of destiny for me to be here," said Smith. "It's a beautiful space, it's sound architecture, it's built for this purpose, and I'm the last full-time purist, traditional blacksmith in the state. It should be my duty to make sure it just doesn't go by the wayside."

Smith's lease runs out in March, giving him at least that long to make plans for his future, meet the new owners and hash out how to go forward. For now, he vows to do what he has since he was a wide-eyed apprentice more than a decade ago -- pound iron.



Sprague, interviewed before the sale of his complex was announced, said that when he met Smith, he recognized a kindred spirit, a dreamer of big dreams, a member of what Sprague coyly calls the "unreasonable persons club," borrowing a famed George Bernard Shaw quotation.

Reasonable people conform their aspirations to the world around them, Shaw said. Unreasonable people try to bend the world to fit their vision.

"Progress," said Sprague, "is made by unreasonable people."

Sprague said earlier this year that he was proud to provide space for Smith's forge. "I'm sorry that our society has evolved to a point where the last ... master craftsman in New England doesn't have a home," Sprague said at the time. "I wish him well, and I'm crazy enough to say, 'Knock yourself out.'"

Smith's custom-ordered jobs range from repairs of wrought-iron fire escapes to decorative iron pedestals and from artwork to simple hooks and nails used for historic renovation projects.

Over the years, Smith has had to keep a second job to support himself and his craft. Now, he said, the forge is busy enough to provide all his income.

Smith is so busy that customers have to wait nearly two months before he can take their job. He has a small coterie of apprentices and helpers, along with a couple of like-minded craftsmen who are regulars at the forge.

His goal, more than to simply build a profitable business creating durable objects, is to foster a durable community, one in which artists and craftsmen depend on each other, work with each other and help each other thrive. Ultimately he hopes to pass on his skills to apprentices who may choose to become masters of the craft themselves, the way Smith did since he was 14 years old after seeing a blacksmith demonstration at a historical village.

(Continued on page 2)

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