OUR GORGE : STYLE + DESIGN
Forging for Life Joe the Blacksmith pursues an ancient craft from his Goldendale shop
STORY BY JANET COOK • PHOTOS BY BEAU SNIDERMAN & JOE VACHON
oe Vachon made it most of the way through college before he took the class that changed his life. He’d long before switched to a studio arts major from his original studies in graphic design at Southern Illinois University after realizing he didn’t like sitting in front of a computer. Then, during his senior year as he coasted toward graduation, he took an introductory course in blacksmithing. “It was like shaking hands with someone from the past,” Vachon says. When he told his dad about the class, Vachon found out that blacksmithing ran in his family. His great-grandfather had been a black-
28 SUMMER 2018 : THE GORGE MAGAZINE
smith, working as the chief mechanic at a logging rail yard in West Virginia during the first half of the 20th century, and running his own off-grid blacksmith/machine shop. His great-uncle also was a blacksmith, helping to produce liberty ships during World War II at Bath Iron Works in Maine. He also repaired the aluminum mast for an America’s Cup boat in the 1940s. “He was famous for straightening metal with heat,” Vachon says. Vachon took to blacksmithing immediately. After graduating, he found a job at a permaculture farm and educational homestead in New Hampshire, where he was hired as the resident blacksmith. There he expanded his blacksmithing skills as he made everything needed on the sustainable farm — from latches and hinges to tools, gates and oxen carts — and taught elementary blacksmithing to others. He also began making functional art pieces for local galleries. “I was reading a lot of old books and learning by doing,” he says. Vachon eventually moved on from the farm, spending a winter working at New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain Ski Resort and saving money to buy an old school bus, which he turned in to a mobile blacksmith shop that he could also live in.