More Sparks from Firesteel

Bickel, Jack. "More Sparks from Firesteel." Timber Lake and Area Historical Society Newsletter, Timber Lake, South Dakota, Volume 31, March 2013, 7.

Herman Kraft at work in his blacksmith shop.

Our community and the historical society lost one of our most industrious members when Herman Kraft passed away in December.

Herman worked harder in his retirement years than most people work in their normal careers. His interests were diverse. He was continually planning, researching, and creating. His mind was never idle. He built a functioning cannon and rope making machines, restored a sheep wagon, and was well known as a preeminent blacksmith producing elaborate iron crosses and Damascus steel knives. Herman was the driving force in building and equipping the blacksmith shop on Main Street and demonstrating and teaching the art of blacksmithing to anyone who expressed an interest.

Herman was generous with his talents. Whenever there was a benefit to raise money in the area, Herman could be counted on to donate at least one of his Damascus blade knives for the cause. His knives were not just tools, they were works of art. In one of our last visits I asked Herman if he kept a count on how many knives he’d made, and he said he’d lost track. I’m thinking it was in the hundreds.

I was one of the fortunate individuals Herman shared his knife making skills with through a South Dakota Arts Council grant. We spent many hours in his blacksmith shop in February, 2005, as he patiently instructed me in the art of blacksmithing.

Herman was a great teacher. He had a way of explaining a concept so even slow to catch on students like myself understood what needed to be done. He didn’t do things shoddily; his standard was always to do the best job possible. After we had made three knives that were mine to keep, he said we should make a fourth knife that would be for a historical society fundraiser. It would take the culmination of all the skills I’d learned on the first three knives plus some added concepts that would make the blade unique with a particularly intricate pattern. Everything went smoothly, we were at the final forging step some 6 hours into making the billet that now had around 480 layers of steel forge welded together. We were cleaning up the billet preparing for the blade shaping when Herman’s sharp eye detected something he didn’t like. The guy doing the hammering on the final forge welding — ME — had been off a very small fraction of a fraction of an inch and there was an ever so slight flaw where the metal hadn’t completely forge welded. It was nearly imperceptible to my eye but not to Herman’s. “Well,” he said, “We can’t use that one!” I asked if we couldn’t just hide the flaw under the knife’s handle? “Oh no,” Herman said, “I’d know it was under there!”

Herman had a deep respect for veterans. We collaborated on a few projects involving World War II veterans from the area. When Herman would state, “We should write a little something about Walter Grage or Lawrence Martian for the newsletter,” he had already done quite a bit of research and was willing to do more if I collaborated with him on writing the story.

When I saw Herman’s pickup pull into the yard I knew he had a project in mind and it would be interesting. I was always proud to be part of a project with Herman. We still had an unfinished story about a Glencross World War II casualty who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for knocking out a German tank. Herman had been trying to collect information on Romanus Wagner but even the diligent Herman ran into dead ends. Wagner had been killed in Germany in March of 1945. And we were still hoping to get a three war veteran, Gordon Lippman, inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.

One afternoon during a calving season Herman pulled into my yard after attending a blacksmith’s auction sale in Custer. He had purchased a very nice trip hammer.

“Jack, if you think you will ever make more knives you should buy this trip hammer. It’s a good one and they don’t come up for sale very often.” He wouldn’t accept more than he paid for the trip hammer and assured me I wasn’t obligated to buy it as he always had someone asking if he knew of any for sale. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for this budding blacksmith and an example of Herman’s thoughtfulness. I was tickled to have Herman shopping for me.

Herman mentored many individuals interested in learning about blacksmithing. There were at least five of his smithing students present at his funeral service and they later gathered in a corner of the community center to exchange stories of learning secrets of the trade from a true master craftsman.
There are a number of people I have known in my life that I’ve respected and admired as much as Herman Kraft but there’s no one I’ve admired or respected more. Our community will miss him.
Happy historic trails.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller