Silver Dollar Fair
Smithy tales with a red-hot beat
Blacksmithing used to be a common profession. In the 19th century, every town and village had at least one smithy working over his anvil, making horseshoes or farm implements, his red-hot forge blasting behind him.
Michael Olson is a blacksmith. With his bare-chested, muscular frame, brown beard and long hair pulled back in a pony tail, and wearing a kilt adorned with “dragon scales” and calf-high boots, he looks like one, too. And he can hammer out a horseshoe in no time.
But he’s not really in the blacksmithing business. As hundreds of people at the Silver Dollar Fair learned over the Memorial Day weekend, he’s an entertainer first and foremost.
Billing himself as the “Village Blacksmith,” Olson and his wife, Christy Horne, spend nine months of the year traveling the country, visiting venues ranging from county fairs to Celtic reenactments. Their show is a unique blend of storytelling by Horne accompanied by “live anvil accompaniment” from Olson, as the couple’s advertising cards put it.
They bring their “stage” with them. It’s a 31-foot-long flatbed-truck rig that Olson designed and built to look like a small castle, with turrets on the top. One side opens to reveal the blacksmith’s shop and forge. The rest of the “castle” is the couple’s home away from home and has a dressing room, a computer station, two bedrooms in the turrets, a kitchen with generator, even a laundry chute.
When he was young, Olson and his family lived in Europe—he says he’s part Gypsy—and he grew up exploring castles and admiring the creations blacksmiths long before him shaped and molded. So it’s only fitting that he now lives in a castle and travels the states showing off his blacksmithing skills.
The couple is based in Angels Camp, in Calaveras County; this was their first time at the Silver Dollar Fair. They ended up on the back side of the fairgrounds, between the livestock and the farm babies, so they didn’t attract the crowds other shows did, but Olson found a way to draw in those who’d give him the time.
During the half-hour performances, Horne, a former accountant, told the audience original stories about blacksmithing while Olson hammered away. She found the inspiration for these tales in anything from Greek and Celtic mythology to Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. The stories were filled with blacksmiths, Gypsies, demons and lucky horseshoes.
“I used to be a really good liar as a kid, and now I don’t get in trouble anymore,” she said, laughing.
“Five Lucky Pony Shoes,” for example, tells how a Gypsy’s horse’s shoe flew off, striking a hungry demon smack dab in the middle of his forehead, killing him and leaving a mark that later scares away his four demon brothers who come looking for him.
Horne’s hands and legs flew into the air as she imitated a dying demon. The small children in the crowd, already shivering from the cool weather and sprinkling rain drops, scooted closer to their parents. One child pleaded with his mom to make Horne stop, but his mom shushed him.
The stories got wilder, as Horne told of blacksmiths who tie down screaming demons to nail horseshoes to their feet.
But she never quite got the crowd’s undivided attention because through it all the master blacksmith was working at the anvil.
A shirtless Olson—huge and overpowering compared to his petite wife—moved back and forth between the anvil and the forge. With hammer in one hand and tongs in the other, he pounded and shaped the red-hot iron, working as fast as he could before it cooled. He went from station to station, dividing his time between the anvil and the forge, striking, pressing and bending the metal, repeating the cycle until the task was done.
A loud sizzle could be heard above the pitter-patter of rain drops as he dipped his finished metal into a bucket of cold water. His wife ended her tale and reached for her tiny kettle filled with red ticket stubs to prepare for the raffle of Olson’s creations.
The two have talents that go hand in hand, he said: He makes her stories more interesting, and she makes his blacksmithing more interesting.
By Saturday, Brittany Thomas had seen the show three times since the fair’s opening day and was eagerly awaiting the fourth performance an hour and a half before the next show was set to begin.
The 8-year-old fan, whom Horne had befriended and knew by name, said she liked Horne’s costumes and stories. And because there were at least nine different stories, and only two were told during each performance, Brittany wanted a chance to hear them all.
But mostly she kept coming back because she was hoping to get lucky and score herself a horseshoe, kilt pin or whatever Olson happened to be making during that performance.
During this particular performance, Olson made five miniature horseshoes that went to five lucky winners whose names were then inscribed onto the horseshoe after the show. (Brittany wasn’t among them.)
Everything he makes during performances is raffled off. Those who aren’t lucky enough to win the drawing can also buy horseshoes and have their names or messages nailed in.
Olson said he began exploring blacksmithing 15 years ago in Europe. He started as a blacksmith who created hardware for personal use. He eventually started doing some entertaining, and after about five years of doing both functional and entertainment work, he made the switch to full-time entertainment.
Olson and Horne frequently return to Germany to learn new things, but for the most part he is self-taught, learning the trade through practice. “If you crazy like it and you practice, you get good at it,” he said.
There’s little call for blacksmiths these days, of course. Blacksmiths will probably be extinct as a profession within his lifetime, Olson said.
“There’s no one behind me,” he said. “I don’t see my replacement coming. People might dabble [in it] as a hobby, but as a way of paying the bills, it has come to an end.”
Machines can do everything a blacksmith does much faster and more efficiently, he explained—but they can’t make blacksmithing entertaining. Olson and Horne have found a one-of-a kind act, and a lifestyle that suits them well.