NIU professor shows off his blacksmithing skills on the weekends

By Robert Baird

Contrary to popular belief, NIU professors have personal lives unaffiliated with campus and biology professor Chris Hubbard has a fiery hobby.

Besides teaching a full course load and doing research at NIU, Hubbard is also a licensed blacksmith with 25 years of experience, and performs community demonstrations frequently.

His most recent public appearance was Sunday at the Glidden Homestead’s antique blacksmith forge, 921 W. Lincoln Highway, where he was in the process of making a shelving unit. Due to the weather, he will only be performing one or two more demonstrations before the winter sets in.

“I love how everyday life used to be in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Hubbard said. “But I do commissioned jobs as well, so it’s also business.

Hubbard said he had found a hobby that fit both his interests and his schedule.

“In the past, blacksmiths would work 12 to 14 hour days, six days a week,” Hubbard said. “I wouldn’t want to do it for a living.”

During the demonstrations, Hubbard uses the tools and technology as the blacksmiths of old DeKalb.

The flames flared and flickered intensely from the forge, as Hubbard rotated the arm of his antique crank blower to keep the fire blazing. Blacksmiths use them to keep the oxygen flowing to the forge’s fire below. Without the blower, the forge’s fire would be out in minutes, Hubbard said.

He tempered the cast iron with oil, which is a type of heat treatment blacksmiths use to increase the toughness of iron-based alloys.

Hubbard said blacksmithing takes a combination of concentration and skill to do properly.

“It takes a lot of hand-eye coordination, and a lot of hammer control as well,” Hubbard said. “Hammering in a forge requires extreme precision.”

DeKalb resident Ashley Watts,a spectator of one of Hubbard’s demonstration, said she never realized how much time went into the craft.

“It’s not every day that you get to see the inter-workings of a blacksmith’s forge,” Watts said. It’s such a time consuming profession too, I never realized.”

Blacksmithing was a crucial occupation within societies until the early 1920’s when it could not compete with factories and modern industrialization. Blacksmiths would be commissioned to forge all kinds of weapons, tools, repairs and horse shoes.

“During the Civil War, the Union were able to manufacture horseshoes, which the Confederates could not at the time,” said Joe Marsala, a local horseshoe blacksmith. “This was a big disadvantage.”

Marsala attended Hubbard’s demonstration Sunday, and he also teaches a class on how to forge horse shoes from scratch.

Hubbard said the Glidden blacksmith shop was not the original shop in DeKalb.

There was not a blacksmithing forge at the Glidden property initially, it was brought in later. Every town had a blacksmith, and Dekalb’s was the Phineas Vaughan Blacksmith Shop, Hubbard said. Phineas Vaughan’s shop is known for the creation of the world’s most popular type of barbed wire used today, and is also why DeKalb was nicknamed “Barb City”.

Blacksmithing required seven years of apprenticeship under a working blacksmith. Parents would sign contract agreements with a blacksmith, which was essentially indenturing their children legally, Hubbard said.

“It wasn’t uncommon for a blacksmith to beat his apprentice either,” Hubbard said. “It’s close to being a slave, if you tried to run away, they would put a bounty out on you.”

Today, blacksmiths, who are called “farriers,” still make a decent living, typically forging horse shoes.

“Modern-day farriers can make a six figure salary, but not without a lot of hard work involved,” Hubbard said. “Horse shoes in the 1800’s would sell for 80 cents, but today they sell for $120.”

Hubbard sells his forged creations at the local Ellwood House Art Fair regularly.

“I get a lot of commission job requests at the Art Fair,” Hubbard said. “I’m only working on two commission projects now, but I’ve done hundreds of them.”

Hubbard also said the Glidden Homestead’s blacksmith club is in the process of creating a new and elaborate street sign for the Glidden Homestead.

Hubbard said he wants students to know that professors have lives outside of their classrooms.

“I want students to know that teachers are approachable,” Hubbard said. “We have their primary best interest in heart. By knowing more about me personally, I hope students will feel more comfortable coming to talking to me.”