Greenport’s Village Blacksmith revives interest in time-honored craft

Village Blacksmith Thomas Barry. (Credit: David Benthal)

Next time you’re ambling down Front Street in Greenport, turn toward the water at the little red one-room schoolhouse from 1840 and step into the Village Blacksmith Shop — a true Old World feast for the senses. As your eyes take in the lovingly ramshackle space, feel the heat from the glowing 2,000-degree forge, smell the coal soot and singed metal and let your fingertips graze the wrought-iron hooks and gift items scattered about. The soundtrack? A metallic clank-clank-clank as blacksmith Thomas Barry hammers red-hot iron pieces into shape on his anvil.

“When visitors enter the shop, I want them to have a real throwback experience,” said Barry, a Riverhead resident, explaining why he uses authentic early 20th-century tools instead of power hammers for his ironwork demonstrations. A true “living museum,” the Village Blacksmith Shop is under the direction of the East End Seaport Museum, preserving a piece of Greenport’s waterfront history.

“My mission is to educate the public about the past contributions of blacksmiths on the waterfront of Greenport Village, and I share the history of Paul Nossolik, a German-born blacksmith from 1925 to 1987 and the very last blacksmith in Greenport,” Barry said. Nossolik also did work for bootleggers and rumrunners during Prohibition, building dredges so they could retrieve booze tossed overboard into the harbor when the authorities got too close … but that’s another story!

A nor’easter destroyed the original blacksmith shop, which stood a few blocks away, but its legacy lives on. In 1999, the East End Seaport Museum, Greenport Village and a cadre of volunteers transplanted an old onion shack from East Marion and reopened it as the historically accurate “new” old Village Blacksmith Shop. Nossolik and his craft are immortalized there with old pictures, handwritten ledgers, a giant vintage bellows and an abundance of dusty anchors, hooks and dredges from decades past.

The blacksmith shop has benefited from the talents of a few blacksmiths since 1999, and when Barry came on regularly in 2018 it became the attraction it is today. For the most part, Barry’s work is volunteer. “I price my gift items low, so visitors will donate into the collections bucket for the East End Seaport Museum,” he said.

Barry practices his craft in the Front Street shop. (Credit: David Benthal)

ALL FIRED UP!

While the blacksmith shop aims to boost awareness of the art, interest has already been growing steadily, thanks to “Forged in Fire,” a competition series on The History Channel in which badass bladesmiths forge all sorts of historical weapons amid lots of fire and drama.

Back in the pre-industrial days when horses clopped down streets, blacksmithing was a vital trade — ever wonder why so many people are named Smith?) — creating horseshoes, farm equipment and an abundance of household items. But even today, there is high demand.

“If you’re lucky, you might just spot the local traveling farrier who still takes care of all the horseshoeing,” Barry said. They can be seen driving between stables in their trucks, with a distinctive rear cap housing the forge.

“The greatest misconception is that blacksmithing is a dying art,” he adds. “But there are many people working metal at a forge. Bladesmiths are growing in number each day and many metal shops on Long Island make beautiful iron works for homes and businesses. The modern day welding shop is the current blacksmith shop, providing all the repair and manufacturing needs of anyone looking for timeless iron work.”

In addition to forging community ties and a link to the past, the Village Blacksmith Shop sells handmade functional and ornamental objects like fireplace pokers, hearts crafted from horseshoes and S-hooks for that perfect farmhouse chic aesthetic. Other favorites? Bottle openers of all shapes and designs, plus forged leaf pendants.

Barry chats affably with visitors and answers questions while he hammers away, explaining the difference between iron and steel (iron is a natural element while steel is an alloy compound of iron and carbon, and, yes, hand-forged kitchen knives are becoming increasingly popular).

The work is hard, hot and dirty, but Barry wouldn’t have it any other way. “Sharing the blacksmith experience with visitors makes it worth the struggle,” he said. “I haven’t met anyone who, once in the door, doesn’t appreciate this building, the forge and the work.”

Barry, a retired special education teacher, might be the biggest appreciator of all. Despite having no family history of blacksmithing, he actually caught the metalwork bug in a seventh-grade metal shop class. Later in life, he even built a backyard forge. (“It helps to have neighbors who don’t mind a little tapping on the anvil!”) He offers workshops at Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead and gives blacksmithing demos at the Country Fair in August.

His pride in the Village Blacksmith Shop is evident. “The uniqueness of our forge location — on a village street and open to the public — throws visitors into awe,” Barry said. “You won’t see it anywhere, except maybe Mystic Seaport or Colonial Williamsburg. Greenport has a national treasure.”