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Blacksmithing in Fairfax County

By Jeanne Niccolls, Collections Manager

Tang! Tang! Tang! The sound of the blacksmith work-ing at his forge once rang out across the Fairfax County countryside. From the earliest days of the colonial period until well into the 20th century, blacksmiths were impor-tant members of Fairfax County communities. Each large plantation, neighborhood and small town probably had at least one blacksmith, just as many localities today each has a hardware store and auto repair shop.

In the late 18th century enslaved blacksmiths Sam and George worked at Sully in western Fairfax County. From New York in 1789, Richard Bland Lee, owner of Sully, inquired as to the probable success of establishing a shop, asking "Am I likely to make anything of the Blacksmith’s shop?" About the same time, blacksmiths Nat and George, also enslaved, were working at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Recent archaeological excavations there have unearthed evidence of their brick forge and shop.

Other records about blacksmithing are numerous. In 1814 near Colvin Run Mill, Rezin Offutt willed a tract of land "where my blacksmith’s shop stood" to his children and "what blacksmith tools is on the plantation" to his wife Mary. Years later John W. Tracey, who also lived close to Colvin Run Mill, called himself a "Coach and Wagonmaker" on the 1884 Fairfax County census; by 1906, however, he was listed as a "Blacksmith, wheelwright, and farmer."

The skills required of the blacksmith were many. He crafted and repaired farm implements, domestic tools and firearms for himself and for the local community. As a wheelwright, he made and repaired wagon and carriage axles and wheels. As a farrier, he fashioned and fitted horseshoes.

Henry Moffett (1898-1984) was a fifth-generation blacksmith. The first shop his family owned was located in Leesburg. In 1904 Henry’s father purchased a lot in Herndon and built a new shop. That blacksmith shop burned in the Herndon fire of 1917. Attesting to the importance of smiths to communities they served, the shop was the first building in town to be rebuilt and the first one to be wired for electricity.

Henry Moffett was the last owner of the shop. He served the needs of his rural community during a period of changing technology, from a time of horse-drawn wagons to automobiles and from hand-operated machines and tools to devices powered by electricity. Besides repairing wagon tongues, mending plows and shoeing horses, Moffett sold coal, wood and stove equipment.

By 1955 there were not enough horses left to shoe, wagons to repair or ironwork to be done to keep him in business. He closed the shop at the age of 68.

In 1975 the entire building was moved piece by piece and reassembled at Frying Pan Park. It became a permanent part of the county’s heritage, thus preserving that last known original black-smith building left in Fairfax County.

Today citizens and visitors can visit this once-common element of the Fairfax County rural and town landscape. The art and skill of the blacksmith have not been lost, however, still present in horse-shoe making and other iron work and in traditional American folk art and contemporary architectural forms.

The Moffett Blacksmith Shop is open for demonstrations during selected special events. By next spring visitors will be able to view the interior of the shop during regular visits to the park. Moffett’s collection of tools used in blacksmithing is fascinating in and of itself and will be part of the interpretation of the blacksmith’s work and life. Call Frying Pan Park at 703-437-8261 for further information.

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