Anvil, Hammer and Forge

06 Aug 2020

Colonial blacksmith extraordinaire Jerry Darnell

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Mollie Tobias

Among the most respected craftsmen in the Westmoore area is blacksmith Jerry Darnell of Mill Creek Forge. For more that 50 years, he has produced a wide range of ironwork from 18th-century reproductions to contemporary art pieces. Considered one of the best in the country, his wares are found in private homes, museums and historic sites, and are created specifically for props in major films.

Entering his rustic shop is like stepping back in time. A cracked “Colonial Ironware” sign hangs inside while forges and other equipment occupy the uneven clay floor. Finished work fills the showroom, mixed with antique ironwork Darnell has acquired to replicate. Light soot covers everything, even the award ribbons that hang in his office.

“I was raised in Moore County,” says Darnell. “I was actually born in Newport News, Virginia, where my dad worked in the shipyard. We moved back here in 1949 when my dad got out of the Navy. He went to work at Ft. Bragg as a welder for around 30 years.”

“We lived in the Niagara community and Dad had a little welding shop behind our house. I’d have to go out and help him, so I learned how to do all my basic ironwork at a young age. I saw him come home all dirty, and I said, ‘I don’t want to do that. I want to use my head.’ I wish I had paid better attention. He died early from a heart attack, and I ended up inheriting his shop.”

Darnell’s initial reluctance gave way to a growing interest in ironwork. “When I started in the late 1960s, there were no blacksmithing books, Google searches or YouTube videos to help. The first old-time blacksmith I ran across was Charlie Jenkins in Carthage. He was the last living blacksmith that worked at the old Tyson & Jones Buggy Factory.

“His father had been the head foreman of the blacksmith shop when Charlie was growing up and they had 20 smiths working there. He was in his 80s when I met him and I was relatively young. Charlie cussed like a sailor and you haven’t ever heard anything like it. We’d sit on his porch and I’d ask him questions. It was really interesting and he taught me a lot.”

On a visit to Boone in the mid-1970s, Darnell observed blacksmith Bea Hensley and his son demonstrating in a parking lot. Hensley had been an apprentice of blacksmith Daniel Boone VI, a direct descendant of the famous frontiersman, who had come from a long line of smiths going back to England.

“I watched and watched them, came home and got some metal, heated it up with an acetylene torch, started beating on it and realized that there was more to it than this. That was when I figured out that I didn’t really know how to do much at all.”

In 1975, Darnell learned from a weaver friend about a place in the mountains near Brasstown called John C. Campbell Folk School. “They had just started a blacksmithing program and I signed up for a class taught by Jim Kroplin. That’s where I got my first hands-on training. After working all week, I didn’t get anything made but a fire poker and
some bookends.”

“The next year, a world famous blacksmith named Francis Whitaker taught at the folk school. I drove all night long to attend the workshop and he demonstrated all afternoon. That’s the first time I had ever seen anyone so skilled at the craft. Whitaker came back the next year and I attended his class and he continued teaching me over a span of 20 years.”

As the country’s 1976 Bicentennial approached, Darnell rode the wave of public interest in traditional crafts. “Everybody wanted to go back to nature and live off the land, and learn how to do it the old way,” he says. Darnell joined Revolutionary War reenactment groups, bringing his traveling forge along
to demonstrate.

In 1979, Darnell opened his current shop in Westmoore and he later built his home there. “After opening Mill Creek Forge, I became acquainted with more and more people who introduced me to major collectors and encouraged me along.”

By 1989, Darnell had mastered his craft and he was invited to be an instructor at John C. Campbell Folk School and has taught there ever since. As his reputation grew, he began teaching at blacksmith conferences across the country. This led to features in national publications, on television and in various books.

For 39 years, Darnell was also a schoolteacher and juggled blacksmithing with his calculus and computer science classes at Pinecrest High School until his retirement in 2007. “There was not a single day I went to school that I didn’t really like,” he says. “I’m tenacious and if I’m working a math problem I can’t put it down until it’s solved. It’s the same way with ironwork. I’ll work on a piece until I figure it out.”

“I like being able to make something from nothing,” he says. “There’s not too much I can’t fix in ironwork and to be able to do that is very comforting.” Still, Darnell doesn't consider himself an artist, and making one-of-a-kind pieces isn't necessarily his goal. “I consider myself a craftsman. I can make four chandeliers, they'll all look the same and that pleases me.”

Darnell’s work came to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox and he was asked to produce props for the 2012 television movie, Treasure Island, and for early episodes of the Fox TV series Sleepy Hollow. This was followed by orders by set decorator Hamish Purdy for The Revenant and Barkskins on the National Geographic channel.

“If someone had told me I’d be making something for a movie that would get Academy Awards like The Revenant, I couldn’t have dreamed it,” Darnell says. “You don’t ever set out to do that. While you don’t get anything except the price for your pieces, it’s kind of fun and your name does get around. That 69¢ will get you coffee
at McDonalds.”

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