VIDEO: Kansas blacksmith forges his own course
Pake McNally is a throwback.
At age 30, he is easily one of the youngest full-time blacksmiths in the state – thriving in an occupation considered obsolete more than a century ago.
McNally uses the blacksmith shop of his now deceased friend and mentor, Tom Smith. It is filled with dust and charcoal smoke, tools, tongs, anvils and branding irons. Small hills of scrap metal surround the property.
Each day McNally goes to work, he does it with the determination of keeping his town and family’s name alive.
“You ever heard of Louis L’Amour? The Tinker?” McNally tells a couple of visitors, citing the famed writer of westerns and L’Amour’s blacksmith character who created knives with his hands.
McNally hammers a piece of red-orange metal on an anvil.
“That sparked my interest. No pun intended,” he says.
“I put off being a blacksmith for a long, long time. Not because I wasn’t interested, but because I was dating a girl, and she told me there was no money in it. And I listened to her.
“That relationship didn’t last.”
He pounds the metal some more.
“This place is where I am supposed to be, what I am supposed to be doing.”
Becoming the town’s blacksmith
For three generations, McNallys have lived in Barber County.
Pake’s grandfather Preston McNally was an area rancher. His father, Mike, was as well; he was killed in a truck accident west of town 11 years ago.
Three years ago, Pake McNally began working in Smith’s blacksmith shop.
To passers-by on U.S. 281, it looks like a tin-covered pole barn. To McNally, it is church.
“There’s not very more like it anymore,” McNally says.
At the turn of the 20th century, blacksmith shops were quietly disappearing on Main Streets across America as horses were retired from farms and cities. Tractors, cars and trucks replaced the equine workforce as mechanics, welders and fabricators took the place of blacksmiths.
But blacksmithing is still going strong, says Patrick Briggs, past president of the Great Plains Blacksmith Association.
“There are thousands of hobbyists making knives and tomahawks,” says Briggs, of Douglass.
“When I was growing up, every town would have a blacksmith and a doctor. You could survive with both.
Blacksmiths were actually the rocket scientists of their day, because they could make anything and fix anything – wagon wheels, plows and harrows. You took it to the blacksmith, who could make anything from scratch.
Patrick Briggs, past president of the Great Plains Blacksmith Association
“Blacksmiths were actually the rocket scientists of their day, because they could make anything and fix anything – wagon wheels, plows and harrows. You took it to the blacksmith, who could make anything from scratch. All that went by the wayside when modern equipment and welding came along.”
In the heyday of blacksmithing, the blacksmith also served as a farrier, trimming and shoeing horse’s hooves. There are still those who do that today, traveling the region.
But, Briggs says, the old-time blacksmith who makes a full-time living creating things from scratch is harder to find.
For McNally, it was simply a matter of time and finding the right mentor, Tom Smith, who was 93 when he died.
“I knew Tom growing up,” McNally says. “My dad and grandpa got a lot of their work done here.
“I remember asking my dad if he would talk to Tom about me apprenticing over here. And Tom, he was a man’s man, a hard guy.
“My dad told me he would break me. And he would have. I had to come back home as a man for him to respect me and for me to be able to carry my own weight.”
After graduating from high school, McNally says, he spent six years working as a firefighter in Colorado and Wyoming.
“I was a wild man firefighter, and we went all over the West fighting fires,” he says. “And then I did full-time structure fires and EMS in Junction City.”
At 27, he came back to Hardtner.
By then, he had built his own forge and worked in his stepfather’s shop at Belvue, near Wamego. He learned Brazilian jujitsu and cage fighting.
He was now ready to become friends with Tom Smith.
It started out a bit strained.
“I didn’t know him,” McNally says. “He didn’t know me.”
All they had in common was McNally’s interest in blacksmithing and Smith’s knowledge of the subject.
They started on Smith’s living room couch in the 1950s-era house Smith built himself. The house is on the corner, down the street from the blacksmith’s shop. By the time McNally got to be friends with Smith, his mentor was home-bound and had trouble getting around.
He was like a grandfather, a friend. We talked about blacksmithing a lot. But we also talked about politics and women and fighting – fighting war and fighting fire. We talked about life. I told him I was engaged, and he told me I was diving into deep water.
Pake McNally, Hardtner blacksmith
“He was like a grandfather, a friend,” McNally says of Smith. “We talked about blacksmithing a lot.
“But we also talked about politics and women and fighting – fighting war and fighting fire.
“We talked about life. I told him I was engaged, and he told me I was diving into deep water.”
On Dec. 5, McNally married Tayla Kimball, a woman with Barber County ranching roots who supports his blacksmithing.
Each day, for three years, McNally says, he would go and talk with Smith. They would drink beer and tell stories.
Smith was born on Dec. 12, 1921, in Piedmont, Mo. He served as a blacksmith on a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific during World War II.
After the war, he first worked in a blacksmith’s shop in Wakita, Okla., until he bought the blacksmith shop in Hardtner in 1948. His wife, Juanita, was originally from neighboring Kiowa.
“He spent the duration of the war in the South Pacific, and his ship was blown up,” McNally says. “He had some pretty crazy stories.”
The blacksmith’s shop is filled with the tools and memories of Smith. Skillets hang from a corner in the shop; Smith used them to make Stateline Roadkill Chili.
“He’d tell folks it had possum, ’coon, all the roadkill you could imagine. Pick your poison. I know how he made it,” McNally says as his voice cracks with emotion.
“He used venison and beef and chili powder and a few other things. He tried telling me the day before he died, but he was pretty weak and couldn’t get it out.”
To pay tribute to his friend, McNally wants to make the chili and invite all of Smith’s and his own friends for a reunion to get the old-timers back.
Best of all, McNally says, he also learned from his friend how to work hard.
“Tom taught me to get out and get in the shop and get to work,” McNally says. “Don’t waste a day. That generation was all about getting stuff done.
“He drove that point home in a way that resonated with me. I am my own boss, and that is key.”
The last time they got together, they drank beer and Smith yelled. He died a few days later, on Sept. 25.
“I was doing something that wasn’t the way he did it,” McNally says. “He taught me some stuff I still use. I was overcomplicating things, and he was on me about that.
“He wasn’t really yelling. He was driving the point home.”
A sacred place
The blacksmith’s shop is all about light and darkness. Sunlight spills into it, but corners and walls hold pieces of dark treasure.
“To a lot of people, this is just a pole barn,” McNally says. “But it is like a church to me. I come in here, it is peaceful and quiet. I am surrounded by history and the things I can make with my own hands.”
Six months before Mike McNally died, he told his son that Smith’s shop held his grandfather’s branding irons. Pake McNally found the irons a week after he began working in the shop.
My grandfather’s brand is on that door right over there. This is a piece of history that I am fortunate enough to keep alive. There are pieces of different ranches and outfits from all over this part of the state, and some of their grandsons come in here and have me make branding irons for them.
Pake McNally, Hardtner blacksmith
“That hit me right here,” he says, his voice breaking. “My grandfather’s brand is on that door right over there. This is a piece of history that I am fortunate enough to keep alive.
“There are pieces of different ranches and outfits from all over this part of the state, and some of their grandsons come in here and have me make branding irons for them.”
Pake McNally makes signs for large ranches, hand-forged fireplace tools, branding irons and artwork he sells across the state. He made a unity cross for his wedding last month that he and Kimball put together in front of friends and family. He has made custom handrails and large pieces of artwork such as the tipi at the new powwow arena in Medicine Lodge.
His business comes from his Facebook page, McNally Metal Design, from festivals he shows at and from word of mouth.
“I am always worried about this business and afraid I won’t be able to put food on the table, but the thing is, right when I start to freak out, a check will come in the mail and I will get a big job, and that’s how I know I am supposed to be in here,” he says.
“The stress level has gone down a lot since I have realized this is what I am supposed to be doing.”
Keeping legacy alive
With only 127 residents, the Barber County town of Hardtner is like a lot of small towns across Kansas – it struggles to keep the next generation in town.
McNally wanted to come back.
“I want to raise a family here and do all that responsible stuff,” he says.
“This town, well, it’s dying. There are some really good people here and really good stuff that happens. But the guys my age – the men and women – they need to start stepping up and taking part.
“For the most part, we do. We have the best Fourth of July celebration in the state of Kansas and anywhere, as far as I’m concerned.”
The town hosts a pit barbecue, has a parade and shoots off thousands of dollars’ worth of fireworks.
“That got started in 1958; my grandpa was in charge of pitting the beef in town, my dad did it for years, and now it is my turn,” he says.
“I love this place. I want to keep trying, even if the town is dying, fine. But if we don’t fight for it, that’s what would upset me.
“You got to at least try.”