John Epley’s Blacksmith Shop (12/13)

BY RICHARD MCGEARY / December 2013

We seldom think about farriers and blacksmith shops these days, but they were as necessary in the days of actual horsepower as are service stations for autos in modern-day America. Cumberland Township’s John William Epley was a renown master blacksmith. His workshop was located in area known as Sedgewick, or Round Top, at the northwest corner of Taneytown and Wheatfield Roads from 1904 until 1960.

Epley, raised on his family’s farm in Mount Joy Township, began his blacksmith business at the age of 25. He first worked as a farrier for Buttonwood Farms in Biglerville. Then for some 30 years, Epley was master farrier for Hanover Shoe Farms, earlier known as Hanover Shoe Stables, a well-known breeder of horses for harness racing both then and now. Census records back to 1910 show that he was a blacksmith in his own shop. In 1940 his occupation is listed as “shoe horses” in his blacksmith shop and working 48 hours a week.

The Epley Blacksmith Shop had all the tools of the trade. Epley made many of his own tools. Most of us are familiar with the basic items found in a blacksmith shop: the forge and bellows, hammer, tongs, and anvil. Of course there was a supply of horseshoes that he produced, nails, clinchers to tighten the nails, hoof and sole knives, and likely a drill press. Less familiar items in the shop were fullers for drawing or grooving, swage blocks for bending or shaping, and buttress to pare out the sole of the hoof. Blacksmithing was hot, strenuous work. To make cold iron pliable for shaping, it had to be heated in the forge by burning coal or coke. Bellows forced air through the forge to create enough heat. Then, Epley went to work with his hammer and other tools. Sometimes, Mrs. Epley assisted her husband in the shop. For example, she would help him repair an iron buggy wheel rim by hammering while he held the wheel in the vise.

Although Epley was best known for shodding racehorses with shoes he crafted of particular sizes, weights, and balance, he also developed a reputation for hand-wrought hardware and as an artisan of decorative ironwork. It is these latter skills that Epley applied more and more with age, arthritis, and the times. He retired from Hanover Shoe Farms and mostly phased out of horse shoeing, except as favors for long-time customers and friends. He produced the WGET sign on the radio station’s fa ade, the railing on the front of the Eisenhower Farm Home, chimney letters, ornamental door hinges, doorknockers, and candelabra.

John Epley was the descendant of a German immigrant who arrived in Pennsylvania well before the American Revolution. Born on April 18, 1879, Epley passed away on Aug. 1, 1960, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery. He was a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Gettysburg. His widow, Minnie Schwartz Epley, lived from 1880 to 1980. They had been married for 56 years.

The death of John Epley was neither the complete end of the Epley Blacksmith Shop nor of an era. To preserve this interesting facet of our local history and that of the blacksmithing trade, the shop was dismantled – the pieces having been carefully numbered – and placed in storage. In 1969, John Epley’s shop was reassembled at the Landis Valley Museum on Kissel Hill Road in Lancaster County. The oldest part of the shop dates to about the 1870s, and the forge and tools go back to about 1880 to 1900. So, in a sense, John Epleys’ Blacksmith Shop of Cumberland Township lives on, as does the heritage of the American village blacksmith. Children and future generations can visit his shop and learn about this hard-working trade that was once so important to our communities.

An excerpt from Longfellow’s famous poem “The Village Blacksmith” nicely captures the spirit of John Epley, blacksmith of Cumberland Township:

Week in, week out, from morn till night,

You can hear his bellows blow;

You can hear him swing his heavy sledge

With measured beat and slow,

Like a sexton ringing the village bell,

When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school

Look in at the open door;

They love to see the flaming forge,

And hear the bellows roar,

And watch the burning sparks that fly

Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

Richard McGeary is a member of the Cumberland Township Historical Society and the Sons of the American Revolution, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He can be reached at mcgeary.suvcw@yahoo.com.