by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater
Dean Howard can trace his interest in blacksmithing to the year he spent as a missionary in Ethiopia. “I was preparing a skills training school there,” he says while sitting on his expansive porch in southeastern Brown County with his favorite dog resting nearby.
“I liked watching the local blacksmiths because it was interesting to see what they could do with such meager supplies and equipment. They would have a little pile of coal in a hole in the ground and conical bellows made out of the skin of a calf’s leg. A little boy would pump air through the coal. That would be their forge. Their hammer was a claw hammer. Their anvil was a sledgehammer head or maybe part of an axle off a big truck. They would make plow points, spearheads, knives, and things for gardening. All their metal equipment for agriculture would come from those blacksmith guys.”
Upon returning to the States with his adopted daughter Wayna in tow, Howard settled briefly in Columbus before moving to Brown County and pursuing the blacksmiths’ art. “I ask around a bit and when you asked anybody in Brown County about blacksmithing they’d say, ‘Jack Brubaker.’ So I visited him one day to find out what you needed to know to get started. He was in the midst of a big project for Mary Hulman, the lady that owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and told me he could use an extra hand. I didn’t go in with any blacksmithing experience—I have a manufacturing background. I hammered rivets and did some cleaning of metal. I forget how many tens of thousands of rivets there were in that big assembly.
“After that project I started doing some forging and working into harder stuff. There were some really good smiths there at Jack’s, Brown County guys. I learned a lot from them as well.”
After his apprenticeship Howard opened his own shop, the Barzillai Forge, and was soon traveling to shows in the Midwest. His creations encompass everything from candleholders to chandeliers, wine racks, iris wall-pieces, housewares, railings, garden accessories, gates and trellises, liturgical art, and custom work.
“Brown County has got to be about the best place to work because people come here looking for artists,” he continues. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else trying to start a craft. Chris Gustin, Larry Spears, Mike Kline and Joe and Peggy Henderson, all of them have been very helpful and supportive as far as me getting things off the ground. They pointed me towards shows to do and referred people to me. It’s nice that you have that network of artists and craftspeople that you wouldn’t have somewhere else.”
This will be Dean’s first time on the Studio and Garden Tour and he is looking forward to welcoming visitors to his new home on Poplar Grove Road and introducing them to his new bride, Wrennie. “I’m planning on working most of the time on the anvil. It’s dirty work but I’ll cordon off areas of the shop so you don’t have to worry about getting poked or burned. The house will be open, with refreshments, and I’ve got ironwork in there to see and to purchase. I’m also going to have my booth set up.”
Howard will be answering questions about his trade and demonstrating how the work is done in a hot firepot using nothing but air, coal, his hammer, and plenty of muscle. “It’s not really smithing unless you’re hammering it out of the forge,” he says enthusiastically. “If you look at Brubaker’s railing in the Brown County Library, that thing is 100% forged. It adds a lot of time when you have to hammer every piece that goes into a railing.”
He thinks that the world could learn a lot from the way people live in Brown County. “Where I grew up in Henry County most everyone was pretty much of the same mindset. They worked the same kind of schedule, had similar jobs. Down here it’s such a mixing pot. You might have an artist on your road who works at home, a contractor, maybe a bartender, somebody who’s a lawyer, some in industry, or in public safety, some in arts and crafts—all over the map, but everybody gets along. It’s a nice environment to live in because everybody has their points of view but they can still live together and not isolate themselves from people who are different.”
Dean’s work can be found at the Brown County Craft Gallery at 58 East Main Street in Nashville and at the Brown County Winery on State Road 46 five miles east of Nashville, or you can visit him at the Barzillai Forge by appointment at 812-988-2691. Be sure to see his workshop and home on Poplar Grove Road during the Studio and Garden Tour, June 23–25. “This is a great spot down here.” he concludes. “Chris Gustin, Tom Tedrowe, and I are all within about two miles of each other and Larry Spears is over on 135.
“They’re all outstanding places to visit.”