African American Blacksmiths of Clark County

Following Emancipation, for­mer enslaved men who had learned a trade had much bet­ter eco­nom­ic prospects than unskilled labor­ers.  One of these trades, black­smiths, were much in demand in Kentucky after the Civil War up until the mid-1900s.  In addi­tion to shoe­ing hors­es, they made and repaired farm imple­ments and a vari­ety of tools. 

William Webb Banks, author of Brief History of the Clark County Negro, recalled that “The pio­neer black­smiths are Jack Taylor, __ Hicks, James Brooks, John Rockhill, John Moss, Zack Bell, Thomas Phelps, Henry Jacobs, Monk Hopewell, Henry Daniel and Joe Jones.”  An analy­sis of the ear­ly cen­sus­es, 1870–1900, reveals that African Americans made up a sig­nif­i­cant frac­tion of the black­smiths in Clark County.  They account­ed for 10 of the 30 black­smiths in the coun­ty in 1870, and 14 out of a total of 48 in 1880.

Table: African American blacksmiths listed in the Clark County census
Table: African American black­smiths list­ed in the Clark County census

Two families—the Bells and Brookses—merit spe­cial men­tion for their long asso­ci­a­tion with the black­smith shop at Becknerville.  The shop was locat­ed at the north­east cor­ner of Combs Ferry Road and Waterworks Road.  The first pro­pri­etor was Zach Bell, who pur­chased the shop from Joseph H. Powell in 1885.  He was aid­ed in the shop by five sons, all black­smiths.  Zach passed away in 1900.

“Becknerville—Died, on the 25th of January, Zach Bell, our vil­lage black­smith.  He was an hon­est col­ored man of good moral char­ac­ter and a good work­man.  He will be great­ly missed.”

After Zach Bell died, two of the sons, George and Garfield Bell, moved their black­smith prac­tice to Winchester.  Sherman Greene* recalled work­ing for Garfield in the 1940s:

“Garfield Bell had a black­smith shop near Oliver School.  When King Ranch came to Kentucky—buying part of Idle Hour Farm on Old Frankfort Pike—they sent upwards of 200 hors­es to Winchester for Bell to shoe.  Sherman walked over to work with him after school.  His job was to keep the bel­lows going and hold the hors­es while Mr. Bell did the shoe­ing.  Sherman once had a horse that would not set­tle down.  Bell tried his hand, and he couldn’t set­tle the horse either, so Bell slugged him.  The horse went down—and when he got up, he stood very still.”

Sketch of Edmond Brooks.  (Louisville Courier-Journal, May 10, 1942)
Sketch of Edmond Brooks.  (Louisville Courier-Journal, May 10, 1942)

Garfield Bell was like­ly the last black­smith in Winchester when he passed away in 1963.

The Bells were suc­ceed­ed at Becknerville by the Brooks fam­i­ly.  James Brooks and his son Edmond Brooks had worked on the Fishback farm for a num­ber of years.  James had learned the trade while still enslaved.  Zach Bell’s heirs sold the shop at Becknerville to C. G. Stephenson in 1915, and in 1918 Edmond Brooks pur­chased the shop from Stephenson.

Edmond Brooks was fea­tured in a 1942 arti­cle in the Courier-Journal.  Edmond said he had worked with his father from the time he was a small boy.  He nev­er had time for school but taught him­self to read and write.  At the Becknerville shop, Edmond made a name for him­self shoe­ing race­hors­es.  He recalled that the line out­side the shop was some­times half a mile long.  Edmond even­tu­al­ly acquired a portable forge which he could car­ry around to the var­i­ous farms.  By the 1940s, most of his busi­ness involved repair­ing farm imple­ments and mak­ing things that could not be store bought.

The arti­cle described Brooks as a “large dig­ni­fied man,” typ­i­cal­ly dressed in a fad­ed pur­ple flan­nel shirt and an old felt hat.  Two of his sons worked with him in the shop, Felix who was a vet­er­an of World War I, and Theodore, a mechanic. 

After Edmond died in 1957, Felix car­ried on the busi­ness in the Becknerville shop.  People attract­ed by his rep­u­ta­tion as a mas­ter black­smith came from near and far.  He spe­cial­ized in shoe­ing sad­dle­hors­es, race­hors­es, trot­ting hors­es and plow hors­es.  The land­mark old shop burned in 1965.  Neighbors encour­aged him to rebuild but, at age 72, he nev­er got around to it.  Felix died in 1971 bring­ing to an end three gen­er­a­tions of blacksmiths.

* Jane Burnam and I inter­viewed Sherman Greene in 2010 for the Winchester Black Oral History Project.

This arti­cle is ded­i­cat­ed to Joyce Morton, founder of the Winchester Black History & Heritage Committee and a long-time activist for Winchester’s black com­mu­ni­ty.  Joyce and her hus­band Eugene are mov­ing to Nicholasville to be near their chil­dren.  They will be missed.

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