History Is Forged in Fire
at Sanborn Mills Farm
By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
Agriculturists of an historic bent can go back to the future at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon and learn traditional farm techniques like blacksmithing and oxen handling.
“Our educational programs are based on traditional New England skills,” said Lynn Graton, program and research manager of the farm.
According to its mission statement, Sanborn Mills Farm is a place for people to learn how to work the land in ways that “are sustainable and self-renewing. Using the model of a traditional New England diversified working farm (agricultural fields, managed forests, timber framed barns for animals, a water-powered sawmill and grist mill and blacksmith shop), the farm serves as a place to apply the lessons learned from the past to current needs for sustainability and community.”
“I love this farm. They have brought the past to the future or maybe the future to the past,” wrote Carole Soule, proprietor of the Smith Farm in Loudon on Sanborn Mills’ website. “However they do it, they do it well.”
The hilltop farm has a state-of-the art facility for teaching blacksmithing with four student forges and a teaching forge all fueled by coal. Each forge has an anvil, vise, hammer and tongs and a quench barrel.
The three-day blacksmithing basics workshop includes an explanation and demonstration of coal fire building and maintenance, hammer handling and basic metallurgy. Participants make a gate hook, trivet and chisel. If time allows, they can try their hand at additional projects such as a fire poker, toasting fork or nails.
“Probably the most important skill you’ll learn in the introduction to blacksmithing is how to manage a coal fire,” said Graton.
Participants in more advanced blacksmithing workshops can learn how to make a carving knife or a camp frying pan. Students must be at least 18 years old to participate.
If you want to learn how to handle beasts of burden, the farm offers oxen basics for teamster and team, two-day workshops on selecting a team, basic commands and yoking techniques. The trainee teamster will drive teams under supervision and there will be discussion of feeding, grooming and trailering.
Much of the training is based on day-to-day work at Sanborn Mills, like hauling timber from woodlot to woodshed, sawdust from the water-powered sawmill to the livestock barns and rocks from the fields to stone walls. It’s BYOO – bring your own oxen – with permission, or a team will be provided.
The farm also offers two-day workshops in traditional painted floor cloths – popular during the 19th century to warm floors and prevent drafts. Workshop participants will make two small 2-by-3-foot cloths, one with a diamond pattern, the other stenciled with a traditional colonial pattern from New England or New York State.
“They were usually made from old sails and stenciled, often to look like marble in imitation of the homes of the wealthy,” said Graton.
Sanborn Mills also conducts workshops on making an oxen yoke and basketmaking. Gift certificates are available. For a class schedule and workshop schedule visit sanbornmills.org.
Graton points out that the farm is not a living history museum as it is currently undergoing construction and it is not staffed for visitors, but an open house will be held on July 29 and visitors will be welcomed.