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Bending an Ear : When Not at His Anvil, Knott's Berry Farm Blacksmith Loves His Tall Tales

September 08, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Don't get him started.

At least not if you're in a hurry. Because if you've got to be somewhere in five minutes, Thomas Hurner will lay his hammer down, pull a pair of crumpled wire glasses out of his even more crumpled derby and make absolutely sure you don't make it on time.

"These are my story-tellin' glasses," he says conspiratorially, fishing them out of the hat. "You can tell I'm tellin' a whopper when the glasses come out."

A kid, maybe 8 and wearing a T-shirt with a map of Texas printed on it, appears out of the crowd walking past Hurner's shop. Hurner springs into action.

"Hey, Texas!" he booms. "Come on over here! You like stories? Lemme tell you a fish story."

And the kid walks over, goggle-eyed, staring at the lanky, soot-covered Hurner in his brown leather apron and heavily spurred boots, while Hurner spins out an impossible fish story (actually about fish) with the dazzling verbal arabesques of a veteran ballpark hot dog vendor.

Which is what Hurner was before he became Knott's Berry Farm's oldest resident blacksmith. So, when Hurner, 52, isn't clanging away at the anvil, bending iron rods into fireplace tools or candle holders or dinner bells, he stands in the door of the old wooden shop and holds forth on blacksmithing, the Old West, California history, ice cream, teddy bears, life, psychology, philosophy, Uncle Zed and the creative fib to anyone who looks even slightly curious.

Forget those lines from Longfellow about large and sinewy hands and brawny arms as strong as iron bands, all that implied stuff about a blacksmith being the strong, silent type. Hurner is about as silent as a myna bird after 40 cups of black coffee.

"My father and his father were blacksmiths, and my great-grandfather was a blacksmith," says Hurner, "so that makes me fourth-generation. I started out here making stained glass, but I have a lot of nervous energy and the stained glass just wasn't enough for me."

So, 2 1/2 years ago, he became the latest in a succession of blacksmiths who have made the worn wooden shop in Ghost Town their sweaty place of business.

"I just went into it with an open mind," says Hurner. "Now I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to."

Today he works in shifts in the shop with three younger smiths, taking custom work orders from park visitors, sending off showers of sparks from the coal forge and, most often, filling the air in his little bend in the street with the tallest and most absurd of tall tales. Indeed, two signs above the shop door tell all that really needs to be known about the operation of the shop. One reads, "Watch Out for Flying Sparks," the other, "Tall Tales Spoken Here."

Word keys to Hurner's tall tales, in fact, are scrawled in chalk on the black metal hood above the forge: lantern, cats, snakes, 3 Bills, Uncle Zed, the chase, something fishy, sugar bowl, buffalo stampede, mining and the helper.

And all it takes to set him off is a child passing the shop.

"Watch this," he says, cocking his head at a little girl clutching a teddy bear. "Hey, teddy bear lover! You know any teddy bear songs? Come on over here and I'll teach you one." And he leaps into a quick turn of "Me and my teddy bear, we got no worries, got no cares. . . ." The second time through, the girl sings along.

"My secret is that I'm going to talk to the children first," he says. "Everybody talks to the adults before they talk to the children. But the kid will always set you up with something. You can always have fun with them. They'll either just stand and stare at you or just start talking to you like crazy. They know I'm not making fun of them. I'm having fun with them."

With the forge stoked up, there is a lot to stare at. Hurner and the other Knott's smiths make nearly exclusive use of tools and techniques that were used by blacksmiths in the last century. Rather than heating and binding metal with a torch, Hurner uses the coal forge, which is fed by a 1901 crank blower. The technique, called forge welding, produces smooth, almost seamless joints, as well as highly tempered finished metals.

It also produces a characteristic acrid smell in the shop, as well as a thin black coating of coal residue over nearly everything inside, men and tools alike.

"The blacksmith was the metal repair man of the Old West," says Hurner. "But there are records of blacksmithing going back to 2,500 BC. A blacksmith was always known as a worker of the black iron, what today we'd call wrought iron."

What the blacksmith isn't--at least not today--is a shoer of horses. That craft is now a separate discipline, performed by professional farriers.

Still, Hurner works with horseshoes. In fact, they're a kind of specialty of his. He walks over to a cluster of them, each hanging from a rafter in the shop by a length of fishing line.

"You have to find ones that have a lot of carbon in them," he says, "ones that have a good ring."

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