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An Artisan For The Ages: Blacksmith Glenn Goldthwait
Montana Senior News, June/July 2014
To many people, a hinge is just a hinge—a necessity, not a piece of art. If they have to buy a hinge to pivot a door, they visit a hardware store and lay down their $15. So, why would anyone pay Glenn Goldthwait ten times that amount for a hinge when the need could be met for far less money? One look at Glenn’s hand-forged hinges with their classic colonial and European-style designs answers the question.
           
“People like having something hand-wrought in their home. They like things made the old way. When hand-hewn and timber-frame log houses became popular, people wanted the real thing for them, traditional ironwork,” says Glenn, a Sheridan, Montana-based blacksmith. “Hand-forged hinges have a different look, feel, and texture than machine-made hinges and can be as pretty as the woodwork. Machine-made pieces have no aesthetic value. What today’s blacksmiths make looks old because we’re using the same techniques and tools as the original blacksmiths used ages ago.”
           
Unlike most other professional Montana blacksmiths—and Glenn estimates there are fewer than 20 professional smiths in the state—he cannot lay claim to a family heritage skilled in this craft. As an uncle and cousin before him, Glenn was educated to pursue criminals not creativity. However, he chose not to go into that line of work.
             
“I have a lot of police in my family, but no blacksmiths. I’m one of the only people around here whose grandpa was not a blacksmith. One hundred years ago in Montana’s rural areas, it was common for ranches to have a blacksmith set up in their barns. This was to repair wagons, shoe horses, or make things for the homestead,” says Glenn, who nonetheless had his own childhood introduction to this ancient art.
           
“My parents took me to Cooperstown, NY when I was around six and a blacksmith there was making rings from horseshoe nails. They bought me one and it became my prized possession; I wore it for a long time,” recollects Glenn. “How someone could take a piece of steel and bend it was fascinating to me.”
           
Decades later after his parents moved West in 1984, Glenn built them a log cabin near Whitefish and wanted it to have traditional ironwork. Since he couldn’t find any hand-forged rails or latches locally he made his own.
           
“That project kicked me into gear. I realized how much I loved ironwork,” remembers Glenn, who taught himself the basics from books and practiced moving steel till he felt confident about his abilities. “Once I got started, I never had to advertise. Friends and neighbors spread the word. Other people in rustic homes wanted something that would have been in a log house 200 years ago. I didn’t expect people to appreciate it this much but I stay busy.”
           
Glenn has built three log homes in the Flathead and Sheridan, all with hand-forged hardware, which can be decorative as well as functional.
           
“It connects me to another era to have these things in my home. I like creating something that will last a long long time,” says Glenn. “I love the physicalness of it and the creative part, as well.”
           
As he explains, the design of items such as hinges has varied little since Paul Revere’s day. “This is what functions well and is reasonably easy to create. It’s how they did it for hundreds of years before machines made them. Blacksmiths continued making them until the industrial revolution, which almost put them out of business.”
           
Fortunately, blacksmithing did make a comeback with the past constantly flavoring contemporary designs.
            
“Almost all the the ironwork you see today is influenced by the hand-wrought pieces created around the world in bygone eras. You won’t find any distinct differences between a hinge pintle—the part of the hinge on the building itself—from Ireland, colonial America, or Spain,” says Glenn. “I’ve seen a pintle in Virginia City that was identical to one in an old Spanish mission near San Diego. Once blacksmiths found the right way to do something, they reached a skill plateau and continued doing it that way.”
           
Living close to historic Virginia City, Glenn has a motherlode of inspiration available a short drive away. On a moment’s notice, he can copy and adapt designs for old-time latches, candle-holders, and handrails dating back to the 1800s. He can just as readily pick up metal to make those items thanks to the region’s deserted mines. Whether he is working with scrap iron from a long-defunct gold mine or newly purchased mild or high-carbon steel matters not to him.
           
“It’s the same thing if I buy half-inch round stock from Pacific Steel or find it laying out in the woods. Around here, with all the old mines, it’s everywhere,” notes Glenn, who follows the same time-tested process as his predecessors. He heats metal in a forge and wields tongs, trip hammers, and hot cutters to create each piece.
           
In addition, Glenn enjoys fashioning tools such as knives and axes. Ever since he moved to Montana in 1977, he has attended mountain men rendezvous, where he puts those implements to good use.
           
“They’re very functional pieces. I like that I can make such essential tools and be self-sufficient,” remarks Glenn, who in 2009 was inducted into the Circle of American Masters by the Montana Arts Council.

“I feel I can count on myself and not have to rely on someone else for things.”
           
He also participates in historic reenactments along with other qualified demonstrators in locales such as Bannack and Fort Benton. After donning the garb of an 1860’s blacksmith, Glenn acts as both entertainer and teacher showing the public how to make anything from a fireplace crane to a coat rack.
           
Glenn’s ironwork even played a role in courting his wife of 11 years, Ann. At that time, Ann’s Kindred Spirits Gift Gallery was located at Glacier Park International Airport and both Ann and Glenn lived in Whitefish. Despite having plenty of high-end orders to fulfill for gates and fireplace screens, Glenn turned out a batch of small heart-shaped hooks to show Ann as an excuse to see her.
           
“We’d known each other since the 1970s and both been married before. Now and then we’d bump into one another around town and I decided to ask if she’d be interested in selling the hooks. Work-wise, it was the last thing I needed to be doing, but I invited her to meet me for a glass of wine on Valentine’s Day and said I’d bring the hooks,” recalls Glenn.
           
Ann enjoyed the reunion so much, she jotted a note on the back of Glenn’s invoice saying she’d like to get together again. Unfortunately, Glenn didn’t notice the message until several months had passed. After realizing his oversight, he promptly called for a date and the romance took flight. As did those heart hooks, which have become one of Ann’s best sellers at her Sheridan gift shop.
 
For more information, email mtforge@3rivers.net or kindred@cyberport.net; visit www.montanaforge.com or www.kindredspiritsgiftgallery.com, or call 406-842-7948 (blacksmith shop) or 406-842-7702 (gift gallery).