Greg Shaffer

Greg Shaffer, Blacksmith, Bristol Virginia, Washington County, Virginia area of Three Springs:

“I had a pretty good childhood here. It was a real quiet farming community. I had really good neighbors, a kind of community that you didn’t lock your doors at night. One thing we didn’t do as a kid was watch TV. We played in the fields; we built forts, played in the creeks, built dams, just country stuff.

I got my blacksmithing from the German and the Appalachian culture; it is a mix of both because they settled [here]. When I was a kid most of this road was German. You had the Housers, the Eisenhowers, the Kitzmillers and we’re all related.

I found out that my great-grandfather, Noah Statzer, had a blacksmith shop in the Smith Creek area. I still have his anvil over here on the side of the shop, and that anvil sat outside of my dad’s shop ever since I was a kid. I always thought that would be really neat to learn how to do that. My dad would say, ‘well, all those guys are gone; they’re dead and the ones that do know anything won’t show you anything.’ So, I forgot about that.

I lost my job at Dana in 2007. They packed up and moved to Mexico, and I said well it’s time to do something else. I remembered my love for blacksmithing, and forging iron and making things. I had already been in the Bristol Forge Blacksmithing group in Piney Flats. It meets at Rocky Mount Museum once a month and I learned a little bit there but I needed to take it up a few notches and learn something different. 

I went to work for Jamie Tyree in Limestone, Tennessee. He ran a production shop and that’s where I learned to make strap hinges and pineals, and door hardware and other 18th and 19th century restoration pieces. Before, it was just a hobby for me. I would do it on the weekends; I‘d make a few hooks and things. 

My dad taught me how to weld. He worked at Black Diamond Enterprise Fabricators, here in Bristol, most of his life. He was a welder fabricator, [and] built hot rods on the side. I still have his 1932 Ford, 3 Window Coupe that he built. He got it in 1958. It was getting ready to go on the dirt track up in West Virginia and he saved it. It is a dirt track survivor.

The loss of my father was difficult for me. He was an ex 82nd Airborne paratrooper, pretty tough guy and I watched him waste away. That was tough seeing a big, strong man waste away. He died in 2009. I was 43 years old. It is rough anytime you lose your parents, but we knew it was coming and we took care of things, and everything was good in the end.

I am proud of my Appalachian culture, but it has been stereotyped for many, many, many years and I think a lot of people that come down here from up North now see that stereotype [is] not really true. The same people that are here in Appalachia are up North and in California, you know. We just got stereotyped back in the 50’s and 60’s with the cartoons and Mountain Dew bottles, a hillbilly with the cork shooting through his hat and holding a pig.

The word hillbilly doesn’t bother me, but that was the tag that was put on my father’s generation. Because they lived out here and they didn’t have water until 1957 and a lot of houses didn’t have electricity. Even people just a few miles away called the people that lived here hillbillies, and they lived in the same town. They just went to the city schools and not the county school.

Appalachian culture is special because of the Scotch-Irish and the German heritage. A lot of the food around here, the whites and the blacks shared. It was called soul food but it was just country food to us, the same thing. Appalachian music has the African American heritage to it because of the banjo. They think that’s where the banjo originally came from. It was a four string instrument and a fifth string was added later on. I don’t play but my grandfather played the banjo and the fiddle a little bit. My grandfather and grandmother knew the Carters that lived down in Hiltons. They were just old country folk; they weren’t famous like they are now. Sometimes they would play at church and I think they would go on WOPI, they had a little rental airtime you could just do basically what you wanted to on there, preaching or singing. 

One of the peaks of my life was starting my own shop and being self-reliant and getting some hardware on some pretty nice homes on the east coast. Since 2008, [I have] done production work for Historic Housefitters in Connecticut. The most difficult thing I had to learn to make was the strap hinge.

You got to get it straight, you got to get it right, selecting the steel of the width you need, and thickness, forging it down to a taper and then you have to isolate the end of the taper into what they call the finials, that is the end of the hinge where you have the part of the decoration or whatever on the end, the bean. The most common that we do in this area and up on the east coast is the bean. It looks like a lima bean and it’s an old colonial style of end on the hinge. Then that is tapered down, depending on what length I need it, I will stop probably about three or four inches from the end, and the barrel will be rolled by hand around a mandrill to fit on the pineal on the door. A 24-inch hinge, start to finish, will take maybe an hour to make.

A lot of people use the artist/blacksmith, and they go back and forth between the two. I have done a little artistic work, but I don’t consider myself an artist. 

I’ve done a little bit of work, through Housefitters for Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates. I made some stuff that went into his home and I think a couple of pieces went over to his home in England. [I] did some hinges for a Burrows, a TV producer, he produced Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, and Friends. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember his last name Burrows. A lot of stuff went into the catalog.

I teach classes here at the shop. I have been teaching some classes up in Jacksonville School of Arts up in Floyd, Virginia. There is an artist kind of craft school up there, but basically I just do it here, sometimes on the weekends. I do a beginning class so they are just starting out. Students just need an interest in doing it. There’s been a couple who went on and done a few things, took it a little bit further. When I started doing this there was no YouTube and you had to hunt people out. You couldn’t go online and ask somebody something; you had to physically go do it. Now, you can get online and talk to people on the other side of the world and ask questions. 

I don’t know if I will do this the rest of my life. I didn’t really plan on doing this. You never know what’s around the corner. I enjoy it and I enjoy seeing people buy it, of course. I like seeing it in magazines and on some pretty nice homes on the east coast and up in Maine and New York. “