Story by MARK SAAL • Standard-Examiner staff
EDEN — For three-quarters of a century, the ringing sound of hammer on anvil reverberated through the turn-of-the-century blacksmith shop in Ogden Valley.
And then, the forge fell silent.
But today, after nearly five decades of quiet disuse, the fires of the furnace have again been stoked, and the sound of steel striking steel once more punctuates the quiet of the rural countryside.
Welcome to Ragnar Forge.
Aaron Richardson is the blacksmith/owner of the historic Ragnar Forge — named after a legendary Viking hero. It’s a place that has changed little over the last 122 years.
The original blacksmith shop was built by J.M Wilbur in 1895. He ran his shop and mechanic garage there until the early 1950s, when his son took over the business. Glen Wilbur then ran the shop for another 20 years, until his retirement in the early 1970s.
After that, the building fell into disrepair.
“He just shut the doors and left the equipment — all the tools and everything,” Richardson said.
In the intervening decades the building changed hands a couple of times. But about 12 years ago the current owner bought it in order to restore it. By that point the building required extensive work, including repairs to the foundation, roof and chimneys.
Once the building was restored, the owner wanted to have all the original equipment and tools moved back into it. He hired Richardson and another man to set it up as a working blacksmith shop.
In February 2015, Richardson began leasing the building from the owner and opened Ragnar Forge, a working blacksmith shop at 2145 N. 5500 East, in Eden. It’s been a dream-come-true for Richardson.
“To be able to work in a shop like this, with all that history, is just fantastic,” he said.
Richardson points to a couple of other blacksmith shops in the state, most notably one in Cove Fort. But what makes the Eden shop unique is that it not only involves the original building, but also all of the original tools and equipment.
“There are only two other blacksmith shops in the country that have both the original building and the original tools,” Richardson said. “The tools are usually pretty valuable, and a lot of times they just sell them off.”
Richardson, who lives in Ogden with his wife and three young children, was born in Payson and grew up in Utah County, the oldest of 24 children. His fascination with the trade began in his early teens, when he visited This is the Place Heritage Park, in Salt Lake City, and got the chance to talk with the blacksmith there.
“He was playing with fire and knives,” Richardson recalls. “To a 14-year-old it seemed like a good idea.”
Richardson spent two summers hanging out at the This is the Place blacksmith shop. His mother and father were supportive of his interests, and let their teenage son build a small blacksmith setup in the garage.
“My parents were really great about it, and gave me the space to do it,” he said. “I think my dad even gave me an anvil for my 18th birthday.”
After serving a mission in England for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Richardson returned home, enrolled in college, and got a seasonal job as a blacksmith at This is the Place. He’d planned on getting a degree in museums and working in that field. He didn’t think full-time professional blacksmith was even an option.
“I did it part time six months of the year, so I obviously hoped to do it as a hobby the rest of my life,” Richardson said. “So it’s not necessarily the direction I thought I was going to go, but the opportunity presented itself.”
Brian Westover, historic trades manager at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, hired Richardson after he returned from his LDS mission.
“He’s a very talented blacksmith,” Westover said. “He’s very meticulous. He always takens the extra step to make things right.”
And, he says, Richardson knows his stuff when it comes to historic recreations, backing it all up with painstaking research.
Richardson says he enjoys making historical reproductions. He also likes making hammers, and recently began making knives.
Richardson stresses that he’s not a farrier; he doesn’t shoe horses. Rather, much of his business has been making custom hardware for houses and cabins — door handles, hinges, latches and bolts, fireplace accessories, things like that.
He also creates decorative pieces, toys, puzzles, knives, axes, and all sorts of other odds and ends.
“It’s fantastic work,” Richardson said. “To be able to take something — a piece of steel worth a couple of cents — and turn it into something valuable is a great feeling.”
If you go back to the 1800s, in a frontier town of 1,000 people about 70 of them would be blacksmiths, according to Richardson. Back then, just about everything was made by a blacksmith at a forge, whereas today machines do much of that work.
Although Westover acknowledges blacksmithing isn’t as popular as it once was, he wouldn’t call it a dying art.
“We saw a huge resurgence in the 1970s among the arts and crafts movement that saved it, and there are still quite a few people doing it as a hobby today,” he said.
ABANA is the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the art of blacksmithing. Last year’s annual meeting was held in Salt Lake City, and the local ABANA chapter — the Bonneville Forge Council — has about 200 members.
“There are tens of thousands of guys all across the country doing it as a hobby,” Westover said. “I don’t see this blacksmith thing dying.”
It’s the elemental nature of the process that Westover sees as one of the primary appeals of smithing iron.
“When you think about it, it involves earth and water and fire and wind, which is something that resonates with people,” he said.
Another selling point? People today are looking for something “tangible and substantial” in their lives, according to Westover.
“Ironwork can last thousands of years, so that speaks to a lot of its appeal,” he said. “Society in many ways is so artificial — we work in cyberspace or online, nothing is really tangible. I think people are starving for something like this.”
On a recent afternoon, Richardson busies himself making troll crosses — curled pieces of iron jewelry inspired by Scandinavian folklore — inside the 122-year-old blacksmith shop.
He uses metal tongs to thrust a small spike of iron into the fire, pulling it out a moment later, glowing orange. He’ll pound it flat before repeatedly curling it around a cone-shaped attachment on the anvil.
Richardson smiles, hammer in hand, as he describes the purpose of the small amulet.
“It keeps away trolls and goblins and elves,” he says, the bright ring of hammer on anvil drifting out the large wooden doorway and into the valley beyond.
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.