Blacksmithing skills develop to meet modern needs north of Elmdale
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Even though the forge has been gone for two decades, Daniel, Dennis and Melvin Petersen continue a metal-working tradition begun by their great-uncle, Mark Petersen, in 1915.
Mark built a log blacksmith shop in 1915, northeast of Elmdale. That was used until 1919, when a frame building was built across the road.
Most of the work done at that time was on plowshares, horseshoes, wagon wheels, buggies and sled runners.
The December 1921 issue of American Blacksmith Auto and Tractor Shop (issue 20) lists an advertisement by Mark Petersen of Bowlus, who had 7-foot white oak sled runners for $6 per set.
Mark’s nephew, Jim Petersen, began working in the shop in the 1950s and bought the shop in 1961.
Jim’s sons, Daniel, Dennis and Melvin, spent time in the shop growing up. “We played in the shop more than anything,” Daniel said. “We were in there ever since we could walk.”
Back then, the blacksmith forge used coal, which the Petersens got from Pennsylvania.
“It was the only coal that worked,” said Dennis. “It burned hotter and cleaner than other coal. It was a big job to get it from the rail car in Royalton back to the shop.”
The forge was still in use when Jim took over the shop. “Dad was still pounding plowshares in the 1970s,” Daniel said.
“There’s not a lot of money in blacksmithing,” said Dennis. “It’s hard work and dirty. Dad was in for a lot of years, but it wasn’t until he started milking cows that he was able to build a new shop.”
When the boys took over, Jim continued farming on the home place a mile and a half up the road from the shop.
In the 1990s, the boys built a 70-foot high portable bungee jumper that collapsed onto a trailer for hauling.
Much of the work they do now includes lengthening or shortening truck frames. Gatr in St. Cloud brings new vehicles to the Petersens.
“We move the axle around for them to get the wheel base they’re looking for,” Dennis said.
The Petersens build many fish house frames. They have stabilized the wheels on existing fish houses, so they don’t bend.
“We built a huge trailer for Larson Boats in Little Falls,” Daniel said. “The wheels were hydraulic for lifting their largest boats off the ground to put in the water for testing.”
A farmer from Wisconsin brought two TerraGators up to the shop.
“We repaired the frame on one and the boom on another,” said Daniel. “He said he couldn’t find anyone closer to work on it, so he trucked it up here.”
“There aren’t too many shops around like this,” Daniel said. “If a lawn mower breaks or a person needs some welding done, we can do it.”
One Swanville farmer came to them looking for a way to better aerate his manure pit. “We put together a barge for his manure pump,” Dennis said. “Manure pits are getting so big they can’t be stirred up from the edge very well. The agitator and a gas engine were put on a float that displaced 22 tons. It was about 12 feet wide by 24 feet long.”
Farm equipment has grown so much larger over time that the Petersens had to add on to the back of the new shop, just to get some of the machines into the building.
The Petersens’ initiative doesn’t only apply to the work they do. Sometimes even the tools they need to do the work have to be built first.
“We couldn’t afford to buy a press break to bend iron,” said Daniel. “So we built it ourselves.”
Daniel’s wife, Diane, does the bookkeeping for the business, which is situated next door to the house. Their three grown children spent a lot of time in the shop growing up, but none are interested in taking over.
It’s the very unpredictability of working in their shop that appeals to the brothers.
“There’s something different every day,” said Daniel.