Wednesday, August 18, 2021

A Business Model Shift
Mikey Sproat, Curator of Collections

Indiana. Washington state. Brownsville, Texas. The updated Sam Houston Memorial Museum website has been active now for several months, and has included, more specifically, the new “Collections” tab which places information and images about objects and documents from the museum’s collection online. Since then, we have received inquiries from across the country about artifacts and archives in the collection. Requests have come from interested parents helping their kids search for school project ideas this spring, academics affiliated with higher education conducting summer scholarship, independent researchers, and history enthusiasts looking for new (old) topics.

          Remember the renowned closet of curiosities from a couple centuries ago? The 20th century model of museums once displayed all their artifacts, and people used to walk through the front door to learn about their contents. This business model changed when the world shut down due to a global pandemic in the spring of 2020. The Sam Houston Memorial Museum is back open, ready to serve its audience in a safe, healthy, and fun way. However, our business model has shifted to include this online showcase of artifacts as well. This blending of in-person experience and online option will not go away but will augment your involvement with our museum. In fact, much of our collection has ‘holes’ in the information, like unknown donors, or un-transcribed Sam Houston letters. You could help us by filling in the blanks for any of the objects in our collection or donating to the digitization project for this online collection project. Want to learn more? Type a keyword into the search option on the “Collections” tab at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum website, or better yet, stop by in-person to visit and learn more about our hero Sam Houston, and what honor means to you.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

                                       Williamsburg Update #11

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

August 2, 2021

Hello All!

            Wow! The summer is certainly flying by. Congratulations to all the Bearkats that graduated this past weekend! I’m at a point now where I have to start thinking about my last projects that I want to wrap my internship up with. I’ve been bouncing around a bit more quickly now in an effort to learn as much as I can.

            This last week I worked on a touchmark or maker’s mark. It is a stamp used to mark your work, so people know who made it. It was based on 18th century styles, though domestically  made ironwork is seldom marked in this time period. This makes a lot of ironwork difficult to date or attribute makers too or even decide authenticity. Many styles persist through out centuries which can make identification difficult. Many of the reproductions we make are indistinguishable from original pieces. When made with the historic materials and used in the same manner, they will wear like the antique pieces had. So today, it is an important principle in museum ethics to indicate that the pieces we make are not original. In the Anderson shop, they mark each piece with the year, the shop mark “WMSBRG,” and often their personal mark.

             In the period, the number of marks can also indicate the weight of an object. Three marks would indicate three pounds. In an era where goods are sold by the pound this is an important distinction. It also tells historians today the original weight of an object. Many tools wear with use, which are most likely to have weight stamps. As they wear and age with time, they can become only traces of their original form. Often, the largest section of the piece survives which just so happens to be where the marks are most often located. We then can calculate the probable proportions of the original piece by calculating the mass of the iron needed to add back. This technique is extremely important in replicating true copies of original pieces.

            This week I also went over to the tinsmith intern’s house to do some woodworking. Tom Goldstein taught me how to make dovetails. I am pretty happy with how my first one went. Afterwards, we went to a neat antique shop, and I found a pair of 18th/19th century dividers. They are in great condition and have some neat welds exposed to indicate how it was made. They unfortunately do not have a maker’s mark but are beautiful regardless.


This week’s pictures are the maker’s mark I made with the impression in the metal, my first dove tail joint, and the dividers that I found. They are abnormally large.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

      Williamsburg Update #10

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

July 26, 2021

Hello all!

            It was another great week here in Williamsburg. I got back from the Outer Banks earlier in the week. My family was supposed to attend the Roanoke Lost Colony play, but it unfortunately got rained out. It was cool to be able to see where those infamous events took place. In the shop this week I worked on a flesh fork, and I am very pleased with how close it is to the piece I was copying.

            This week I also went to the Rockefeller Library here at Colonial Williamsburg. The library is open to the public and has some really great resources. I, of course, enjoyed the books on ironwork and blacksmithing. While there, I skimmed through a few sources that I knew we talked about in the shop. It’s always good to have read them yourself instead of just regurgitating information from other people. I also checked out a book on enslaved blacksmiths in Louisiana in the 19th century, which I am hopeful will help me understand Joshua Houston better.

            There is a lot of muscle memory involved in blacksmithing so with tooling changes, it can be a challenge to adjust. I had just gotten used to my new nail header I had made (which was the third time this summer I’ve changed headers) when I chipped it last Sunday. I’m not completely sure why that happened, but I reforged it.  I will start tomorrow trying to clean it up to be able to use again. I will try and temper it back farther this time, so it won’t be quite as hard.

            As for the flesh fork, I am very pleased with how close I got to the original piece. The “original” is actually a copy another smith did of the 18th century fork back in 2008. It is a complex item to file because the tines are round and there are several bends in them. In the picture, you’ll notice that my tines are slightly longer. This was purposeful because the master of the shop noted that the 18th century piece likely wore down over time. Though I am still shooting for a more exact copy next time, I am pleased with the improvement throughout this summer.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

   Williamsburg Update #9

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

July 18, 2021

Hello All,

            This week was a very special week for me! My family got to visit and see me working in the shop. This week I started some new projects. I kept working on the fireplace shovels, and I also am working on a flesh or meat fork for cooking. I also took a trip to Wilson, North Carolina with my host this summer. In Wilson there is a collection of large pinwheels/weathervanes, called whirligigs, made by a local farmer. When he died, they were brought to a park downtown.

            The first Rachitas came to Williamsburg in 1957. My grandfather, who was thirteen, was here with his parents on a family trip. This was also the first year that Queen Elizabeth came to visit. When my dad was four, my grandfather decided to start a family tradition by coming back every summer. With the exception of last year, there has been a Rachita in Williamsburg every year since 1971. I think that is quite an accomplishment and has certainly impacted my path in life. I first attended the family trip in 2005. My sister and I dressed up as colonial people and did all the sight-seeing. I also came back in 2017 and met with the master blacksmith, Ken Schwarz. We discussed career paths, blacksmithing technique, and he suggested that I apply for the summer internship someday. I know for a fact that meeting helped me to narrow my focus on the type of blacksmithing and my career.

            Vollis Simpson was the farmer that made the whirligigs. He lived in the 20th and early 21st century. As he aged, his huge collection of towering sculptures fell into disrepair. In 2010, the city moved many of them downtown and made a park so people could enjoy them. Because many had broken down from years of exposure, they had to reproduce some of them that could not be restored. I thought that this was very interesting as it is essentially what we do in the blacksmith shop every day! A reproduction of an 18th century object has the same principles as 21st century reproductions. They also are in the process of creating a formal museum near the park. It was very cool to see the establishment of a new museum and see new history being written. It’s a great reminder that the events happening in our present day will one day be remembered by those of the future.


    The photos this week are me in the magazine in 2005 while wearing a costume my grandmother made for me, my grandfather in the stocks at CW in 1957, and then whirligigs at Vollis Simpson Park in Wilson, North Carolina. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

    Williamsburg Update #8

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

Hello All,

            I had a really great week last week! I continued working on the fireplace shovels, and I filed my first one. Though there is a lot to improve I am happy with how it came out. I also got to go to Monticello this week. My host worked with the man who portrays Thomas Jefferson for over 30 years before he went to Monticello. We got to visit with him after one of his performances which was a great treat!

            Monticello was a very interesting place to go. Jefferson designed the house several times. He always seemed to be in debt because of all the building projects that he would partake in. My favorite part was “Mulberry Row,” the area where his enslaved workers lived and worked. Jefferson experimented with a variety of industrious ventures like nail making, wine, and textiles. I of course enjoyed reading about the nail making done on site and brought lots of questions and thoughts back to the crew at CW.  

            I also toured around CW on my other day off this week. I visited with the cabinet makers, farmers, founders, tailors, and shoemakers. The master shoemaker gave a lecture in the afternoon about the tradition of concealing footwear in newly constructed buildings as a way to ward off evil spirits and encourage safety and prosperity. While visiting with the farmers, they showed me around in the model farm. They pointed out what the different tobacco leaves felt like and at what texture they are ready to harvest. I immediately felt the tar leaching out of the tobacco leaves which really surprised me. I always thought tar was a modern additive in tobacco products. I finished the day with a tour of the George Wythe home. George Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of Thomas Jefferson’s law tutors.

            I’ve been working hard in the shop. I’ve been trying to absorb as much as I can while I’m here with such great smiths. I’ve been able to get the process on the fireplace shovels down but I am still hoping to get them much cleaner. I’ve also been relearning the process of making nails since making a new nail header. Much of nail making is muscle memory so trying to be efficient in a new tool can be very challenging.


            The pictures this week are Elaine and me at Monticello with Bill Barker/Thomas Jefferson, a finished fireplace shovel, and a close up shot of the handle detail.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

                                    Williamsburg Update #7

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

July 5, 2021

Hello all,

            First, I’d like to say Happy Independence Day! It was really neat to get to celebrate our nation’s founding in an area that is so significant to that period in history. I was working on the fourth, and we certainly had a large number of visitors come through the shop. It’s been great to see things return to normal so places, like Colonial Williamsburg, can share their story again!

            On Saturday, I attended a concert of the Air Force Heritage Band of America that was hosted by Colonial Williamsburg. I really enjoyed hearing both the classic patriotic songs and some modern, well known ones. On the fourth, in addition to working at the blacksmith shop, I was able to catch the Fife and Drum Corps practicing before a performance at the Palace. I capped the evening off by watching the fireworks with some coworkers away from the large crowds.

            This week I started some new projects. One was a nail header, which is a tool used to help form the head of the nail in the final stage of production. It is made from two pieces; the body being wrought iron with tool steel being jump welded on. This project is particularly challenging because it requires an extremely small hole to be punched through a very large, hot bar. If made correctly, a good nail header should be able to make tens of thousands of nails or more in its life.

            I also started working on a fireplace shovel. I practiced how to make the handle shape first. With that test piece, I made a spatula by welding a blade to the other end. I have been getting some great practices with forge welding, and they have been going really great recently.  I started these new projects because I messed up the last trivet I was working on. I decided to move on for the sake of time and hopefully return to it later.


The photos this week are me filing up a trivet, the finished nail header, the shovel and spatula while in progress, and the Fife and Drum Corps practicing.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

 Williamsburg Update #6

Josh Rachita, Historical Interpreter  

*Josh is interning for the summer at Colonial Williamsburg.*

 June 24, 2021

This week was a short week for me as I am traveling to my sister’s wedding this weekend. I did spend a couple days in the shop where I continued working on the trivet project. I finished one that I am really pleased with, so now I am working on another using historically correct material which is wrought iron. Also, after 5 weeks and probably 1000 nails, they have improved enough that I can start contributing to the Brickyard shed project, which really makes me excited to be able to benefit the shop in that way.

            The material I am making the latest trivet from is called wrought iron. Wrought iron is a relatively soft material, so it moves very nicely under the hammer, and it forge welds much better than modern day steels. It is no longer being produced commercially because of technological advances that make mild steel a better material to use for modern applications. Any wrought iron used today has to be salvaged from old buildings, bridges, iron tires, and other similar sources. Due to the high cost and limited supply, apprentices very rarely get to use the material, especially for practicing. It is pretty extraordinary to see how big of a difference the material makes while constructing and using these items.

            Due to its semi-homogenous and soft nature of wrought iron, it is not suitable for a tool surface. Something like a cutting edge or hammer face is often made from hardenable steel with a body made from the softer wrought iron. Historically, this was done as a cost saving measure. Steel, which was most often imported from England in the 18th century, was three times the cost of iron. Iron was also readily available in the colonies, as the Thirteen Colonies accounted for the third largest iron producing region in the world, on the eve of the revolution. This source of iron was one of the reasons England set up the colonies in the first place. While England had plenty of iron ore, they lacked the timber needed to smelt the iron ore into usable iron bars.

            I’m excited to get back to Williamsburg and finish up the trivet project. I think a nail header will be the next thing I work on. I am very excited to learn how to make another tool that I can add to the tool kit.


The pictures this week are a photo of a finished trivet and that same trivet on top of the original drawing.