Alabama blacksmiths lend talents to Belgium war memorial

Alabama blacksmiths lend talents to Belgium war memorial
Athens Forge Master Ronnie Howard wields a hammer while blacksmith Al Stephens assists as part of the project to help create a war memorial in Ypres, Belgium. (contributed)

A group of Alabama blacksmiths is helping to create a war memorial that will be erected in Ypres, Belgium later this year.

Athens Forge is made up of professional blacksmiths, hobbyists and other people who are interested in the ancient craft.

The members of the Athens Forge, who have a passion for blacksmithing, work on a project.

The 45-member group, one of nine across the state that comprise the nonprofit Alabama Forge Council, aims to promote blacksmithing. They meet regularly to swap tips and show each other what they’re working on.

Athens Forge Master Ronnie Howard said they learned about the Ypres project last year, long before the deadly terror attacks in Brussels that thrust Belgium into the global spotlight.

“With everything going on in the world, we thought this was a good thing to do,” he said. “We’re a patriotic bunch, so we want to participate and recognize those who have given their lives for the freedoms we have.”

Poppies from around the world

The Ypres memorial is based on the Flanders Field Poppy, an internationally recognized icon of World War I. The flower was immortalized in the poem about soldiers buried in the battlefields around Belgium, “In Flanders Fields.”

Blacksmiths from all over the world are fashioning poppies that will be a part of the memorial. Athens Forge surpassed its goal of producing one poppy for each of its members, and will contribute more than 50.

The poppy is an icon of World War I, recognized around the world. (contributed)
The poppy is an icon of World War I, recognized around the world. (contributed)

Al Stephens, one of the few professional blacksmiths who is a part of Athens Forge, said the poppies, formed from mild steel, are easy to make with basic blacksmithing skills, and that made the Ypres memorial an attractive project.

“We’re always looking for projects that anybody of any skill level can participate in,” he said. “This project fit that bill very well. Everybody in the group that wanted to help was able to help.”

Stephens, a full-time blacksmith for more than 20 years, sells hand-crafted iron work to stores across the country through his business, Pequea Valley Forge. His products include candle holders, veggie choppers, pizza cutters and other household items.

Stephens said he also was attracted to the project because his grandfather fought in World War I.

“This is a way to contribute on his behalf,” he said.

Connecting with an old craft

Athens Forge is sending its poppies to a U.S. collection point in Kansas. Then they will continue on to the United Kingdom, where the stems will be assembled. Finally, the finished products will be installed in Ypres this fall.

Steve Alford, another Athens Forge member, said the project is a good match for the group’s mission.

“We want to make the public aware of blacksmiths,” he said. “We’d like to carry on the craft, and we have to do things to get people interested so we can show them more about it.”

To that end, Athens Forge members have provided decorative iron pieces for schools, municipalities and parks.

Alford, an engineer by trade, said there’s something about blacksmithing that’s special, that appeals to man on a basic level.

“Way back when, the Greeks believed that everything was about four basic elements: earth, air, wind and water. Blacksmithing has all of that. This is an old craft and it’s woven into our civilization. I’ve always been fascinated by the blacksmith being the guy that went West with everybody else, making the tools they needed to build the frontier,” he said.

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