Blacksmithing Traditions in the Indiana Stone Belt

Limestone Blacksmiths, 2013-2014 REN

To see a large-size version of this panel, click here.
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The current TAI Rotating Exhibit Network series includes an exhibit panel on stoneworking tool blacksmiths in south-central Indiana’s limestone industry. The display highlights the work of two tool makers, Dan Roberts and Ed Bixler, who continue the practice of forging individualized chisels for cutting and carving locally-quarried building stone.

The Indiana limestone business figures prominently in the state’s social history. However, the work of quarrying and fabricating stone in the present day receives considerably less attention. TAI’s 2012 and 2013 survey fieldwork in the stone business put us in touch with many of the people who perform and perpetuate this work. In the course of interviews and visits to local quarries and mills, we sought to learn more about the specialized skills, knowledge, and experiences that Indiana stone craftspeople have shared within their professions for nearly 200 years.

Beyond extracting and shaping stone, Indiana businesses have also established themselves as leaders in stone tool and equipment production. While some stone work processes have change drastically with new technologies, others have remained relatively stable, requiring the same kinds of tools and equipment that craftspeople have used for generations. Two stoneworking tool makers in the area help meet the continuing demand for customized steel chisels for cutting and carving stone. Dan Roberts, manager of Bybee Stone Tools in Ellettsville, and Ed Bixler, an independent craftsperson in Spencer, use blacksmithing methods to craft these tools, heating steel in a gas forge and shaping it through a process of hand- and mechanized hammering. They learned these skills from older toolmakers like Vestal Barger and Otis Moore, who worked at a time when limestone blacksmiths represented a distinct trade within the professional structure of the industry.

Today, fewer tools necessitate the forging process, and only a handful of craftspeople possess blacksmithing equipment and experience. Perhaps as a result, Roberts and Bixler stay very busy, filling orders from around the Indiana stone belt—and from around the world—for specialized stoneworking chisels. “There aren’t a lot of hand-forged tools being made for the limestone industry,” Ed told me in an interview. “A lot of tools now are stamped out–machines that silver solder, holding the carbide on–it’s inserted into them. And it makes the tools, the actual cutting edge, thicker. And most all the stone cutters I make tools for, the tool has to be thin where they can get into these tight places and do their carving. They’ve got to have them thin. A lot of tools I make are special-made.”

Our REN panel on Roberts’s and Bixler’s work discusses the ongoing cultural and practical importance of the blacksmith role in the contemporary industry. The display also features photography of the toolmakers at work, the chisels they produce, and stone art and architecture that represent the industry’s toolmaking traditions.

Click below to listen to Ed Bixler discuss his apprenticeship under Vestal Barger:


Follow this link to visit the website for Bybee Stone Tools in Ellettsville:

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