Ken’s Custom Iron holds Blacksmithing for Veterans day

Brent Flatley used tongs to take a glowing, heated piece of metal from a forge – a workplace used for heating metals –  and began hammering on it.

All around him, on April 30 in the Ken’s Custom Iron blacksmith shop, north of St. Anna, people were hammering, bending or twisting glowing pieces of metal. They were blacksmithing, and like Flatley, almost all were veterans.

MaryLou Zitur, who owns the business with husband Ken, said, on April 29, that this is the seventh time they have held a Blacksmithing for Veterans day. 

“They (veterans) come and get a taste of blacksmithing,” she said. 

The Ziturs started Ken’s Custom Iron in 1988 after Ken had worked in blacksmith shops for Burlington North Railroad.

“I worked there for 12 years, until they shut down in 1986. Then I started my own business,” Ken said. 

He found a job he likes doing and wants to share it with others.

“You get to be creative,” Ken said. “You are using your brain, thinking about a project and you have to be physical.”

And he likes sharing his passion with others, including veterans. 

“This isn’t a formal class-type event where we’re teaching any specific thing, but we are trying to show them what is possible through blacksmithing,” he said. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money on the (blacksmithing) hobby, because you can make most of your own tools. There is just something satisfying about pounding on a hot piece of iron and turning it into something that will last for hundreds of years.”

He could name about two dozen blacksmiths that lived well into their 80s and 90s.

Elements of creativity and physical work were evident at the event. Flatley, under the direction of Ken’s team, hammered on a length of metal he needed, reheated it, took it from the forge and began to twist it. At other stations some started hammering heated railroad spikes flat to make knife blades. Others heated crosses and used hammers to texture them.

While there were professional and blacksmith hobbyists at the shop, the majority of those working with metal were veterans. 

“In the past, we held the event near Veterans Day in November but did not last year because of the pandemic,” MaryLou said. “We decided to have it in April, before everyone’s summer schedules get busy and the weather gets too warm.”

Having a veterans’ event came as Ken, MaryLou and their daughter, Samantha Rule, an Air Force veteran, were discussing how they could give back to the community.

“We appreciate veterans, and we read an article about how therapeutic blacksmithing might be,” MaryLou said. 

 They had 120 registered for today, Ken said, looking around the shop. “They come and go all day long.”

There were nine forging areas in the shop, set up by Ken, MaryLou and their team, as they worked with veterans. They looked forward to the day, not just because of the blacksmithing. It gives them and the veterans a chance to mingle and share stories. Many of these veterans mentioned they don’t regularly meet with other veterans. 

“The camaraderie they have is really cool,” MaryLou said.

Flatley repeated heating, hammering and bending of the iron, and he gradually saw it take the shape he wanted. He was careful and constantly consulted with a team member on the steps. 

The work had other benefits. For some of the veterans working with the heated metal has something they needed.

“We’ve had a lot of veterans after they come to an event say it is the first time in years they got so caught up in what they were doing that they weren’t preoccupied with their mental or physical conditions,” Ken said. 

One veteran started his own blacksmith shop after attending a Blacksmithing for Veterans day. The experience might turn into a life-long hobby for some veterans.

Among many other things at the event, there were pre-formed crosses, knifes and ax blades (called blanks) on which veterans pounded in a texture and put on handles for finished projects. 

At one station, knifemaker Al Hochhauser answered questions on the proper way to forge and make blades. 

Sponsors helped with providing materials and a noon lunch.

“Any donations and all proceeds are being donated to Eagle’s Healing Nest in Sauk Centre,” MaryLou said.

The Ziturs and their team set out to show their appreciation for veterans – and they have forged friendships and a sense of accomplishment.