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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Drove Two Million Nails into Feet

Two or three weeks ago, a reader asked about the vocabulary of oxen -- what commands they understood and how they were managed by a teamster. Although we weren’t able to answer that question with the Society’s online collections (we refered him to colleagues at Old World Wisconsin), we did stumble across some oxen-related oddities.

Perhaps the most colorful of those is this 1921 article about blacksmith G.F. Koehler of Merrill, in Marathon Co., whose author calculated the figure used in the title above. "With an average of eight nails to a shoe," he wrote, "Mr. Koehler drove close to 2,00,000 nails into horses’ hoofs during his lifetime, counting those which failed to gain a hold and which had to be replaced. But in good feet the number of these misses in placing nails was small."

Koehler was born in 1846 and came to the Wausau wilderness at age 13. His family’s pioneer life is recalled in detail, including exactly how they built and shingled their log cabin (a single pine tree provided enough shakes to enclose their 75x20 foot barn), frequent meetings with wolves and Indians (who "proved perfect gentlemen"), and the occasional encounter with a schoolmaster.

But to get back to our reader’s question, the article provides a wealth of detail about exactly what a blacksmith did in the 19th century -- jobs, tasks, tools, wages, prices, and so forth. If you’ve ever wondered how Longfellow’s "village smithy" actually spent his days, take a few minutes to read the memoirs of the northwoods vulcan, G.E. Koehler.

And if that’s not enough, stop in at Old World Wisconsin for one of this year’s special events, and watch a real blacksmith at work in the Crossroads Village. It may inspire you to enroll in their next blacksmithing workshop and give it a try yourself.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 9, 2007

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