Sixty years a 'smithin': Rochester craftsman continues ironclad hobby
Blacksmithing has become a red-hot hobby over the past several years, but for Conrad Bernier it began as a very practical interest.
As the oldest of four boys growing up on a farm in Dartmouth, Bernier said, “It always seemed to be my job to fix whatever my brothers broke.”
A blacksmith often came to the family farm, which piqued Bernier’s interest in the craft.
“I would ask him if I could swap my labor for blacksmithing instruction,” said Bernier.
Known to most as Slim “because I was a tall drink of water,” he began weekly visits to the blacksmith’s shop in 1950. A few years later Bernier was drafted, and when he came back to Dartmouth two years later, the blacksmith had passed away.
“I had to get my own equipment and make my own mistakes,” said Bernier.
For more than 30 years, he worked for the phone company, while developing his hobby on the side. Slowly, Bernier acquired a forge, anvils and other tools for the trade.
He also relocated to Rochester, moving into a 300-year-old farmhouse.
“It’s real country out here,” said Bernier, who often drove through the area for work. “I loved it.”
A resident since 1963, Bernier’s forging continued in a corner of his barn, even as he discovered antique iron pieces scattered along his land that were akin to his own creations.
Around 15 years ago, Bernier built a workshop to give his hobby more breathing room. From the small wooden building in his backyard, Bernier, 82, makes pieces that are both functional and pretty, from hinges and hooks to skewers and napkin rings.
Connecting with other blacksmiths and teaching the craft has also been a hobby for Bernier, who often does demonstrations and speaks on blacksmithing.
Two decades ago he was introduced to the New England Blacksmiths, a network of craftsmen and women.
“It had about 100 something members then. Today we’ve got over 300 blacksmiths,” said Bernier, who was surprised to find so many. “I thought I was the only one in the world doing this.”
The resurgence has helped to expand the creative aspect of the work, said Bernier.
“Especially the women, they come up with a lot of good ideas,” said Bernier, who was pleasantly surprised to see the formerly male-heavy hobby has become more gender neutral. “It was kind of a macho thing, but I found out that there are quite a few girls that do it. They do pretty nice work, too.”
When asked if he considers himself an artist, he said, “I never thought of myself that way, but in some things, yes.”
What has kept him coming back to the forge for more than 60 years though is the challenge of creating new things and the physical nature of the work.
“[I enjoy] the smell, the idea of doing it.”
Slim Bernier will hold a demonstration at Anthi Frangiadis Associates, 11 Spring St., Marion, on Thursday, Dec. 19 from 5 to 7 p.m.
Bernier also does commissioned pieces and can be reached at email@example.com or 508-763-2414.