CATEGORY: Monroe County
BLACKSMITHS KEEP TRADE ALIVE
By Eileen Bailey
SMITHVILLE - As eyes adjust to the dimness of the building, a glimpse into an almost forgotten art comes to light as Leon "Bunk" McKenzie stokes the red coals on the burner.
McKenzie, one of the few remaining blacksmiths in Northeast Mississippi, continued to stoke the coals until the blower had flames creeping upward.
The Smithville resident, along with his cousin, Denver Wright, provide blacksmith services to businesses and individuals in Smithville, Monroe County and various counties in the state. They are carrying on a tradition that began with their fathers.
Elmer McKenzie and H.H. Wright, who were married to sisters, began in the blacksmith business in Alabama but moved the operation to Smithville in 1922. McKenzie, who declined to give his age, said he has been working in a blacksmith's shop for as long as he can remember.
"This is all I ever knew to do," McKenzie said of his 51 years in the business. "I love it or I would not do it."
Wright worked in the business for about seven years before going to work for Kerr-McGee in Hamilton. He has since retired and helps McKenzie on occasion.
A click followed by a soft whoosh and bright light has Wright ready to continue welding on the frame of a hay bale roller. In addition to providing welding services, McKenzie sharpens blades to bush hogs, repairs other iron pieces and other small jobs.
"I sharpen anything the womenfolk want," he said.
McKenzie said he does not do horseshoes any more but still does iron work. To work on iron, McKenzie will heat his burner by poking the glowing coals. A blower on the burner helps to fuel the fire. An object is placed in the fire to heat and from there he will either hammer it on the anvil or use an electric hammer that is operated by a foot lever.
His clientele come from many parts of state.
"I have customers as far away as Tishomingo County, Lowndes County and Lamar County, Ala.," he said.
McKenzie said the reason his customers come from such places is that it is hard to find a blacksmith. And the art may be slowly dying away because it is hard to "get helpers."
The work of a blacksmith, he said, is hard. In the winter months the warmth from the fires is not a problem. But, he said, "it gets bad hot in the summer."
The shop's hours are not as long as they once were, he said.
"We used to stay open until 7 or 8 p.m.," he said. Now McKenzie calls it a day around 3:30 p.m.
The shop, located in the heart of Smithville, just northeast of Amory on Mississippi Highway 25, is a metal building. McKenzie said his father and uncle had built a different blacksmith shop when they first moved there but that wooden building was torn down. The existing shop was built in 1946.
Much of the equipment in the blacksmith's shop shows signs of use from the large dented anvils that were brought to Smithville by his father to a large wooden table that has numerous holes drilled into the top and side. McKenzie will drill a hole in the table to see if it is the right size for what he needs to do.
"Most of the tools belonged to our parents," he said.
The shop also has become a gathering place for some of the residents in and near Smithville. Gathered around a pot-bellied stove, that has obvious signs of wear and numerous patches, the residents talk about the day's events and occasionally take time to joke with McKenzie.
"This is the main gathering place of Smithville," said resident William Gregory, who had stopped by to have some work done.
In addition to the fellowship, most in the group agree that McKenzie's work is important.
"If it can be fixed, he can fix it," said Gene Roberts of Smithville.
Resident Troy Jackson said that McKenzie is part of a rare breed.
"There are few blacksmiths left and they are scattered. This is a dying profession," he said.