Under the spreading chestnut tree, The village smithy stands.
The smith a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands.
And the muscles on his brawny arms,
Are strong as iron bands.
_ Henry Wadsworth
They don't make blacksmiths like they used to. At Downing's Forge on 34th Avenue S, owner Sam Lamping has just about given up on the breed.
He remembers too well the day, back in 1956, when he hired the great Mike Kubacko:
"I'd advertised a job for $1.50 an hour, when most skilled labor jobs were going for about 95 cents. Twenty-seven people showed up.
"Mike was about 40, big and strong with huge arms. But not much when it came to conversation. I showed him an iron gate and asked if he could make something like that.
"Yup," he said.
"After you made it, could you install it?"
"What tools do you need?"
"Got my own."
Mike Kubacko got the job and produced fine ironwork for 33 years until a heart attack put him in a nursing home. This was one of several setbacks that have taken the fun out of owning a forge. Lamping is ready to sell his landmark business.
It began in 1921 as Webb's Blacksmith Shop. (The proprietor was no relation to drug store magnate Doc Webb.) Five years later, Charley Downing bought it for $6,000, changed its name to Downing Forge and then ran into the Depression.
Downing used to say he tried unsuccessfully first to sell the place back to Webb, then to give it back to him. Downing hung on, prospered and sold out to Lamping for $35,000.
Lamping was a purchasing agent in the iron business, first in Ohio, then in Pascagoula, Miss., where he conceived a longing to live in Pinellas County.
"The Gulf Coast on Mississippi is a long way from being the Gulf Coast on Florida," he says.
Under the impression there were purchasing agent jobs available, he moved his wife and two children to St. Petersburg. And then found the best job he could get was as head of personnel in a juice factory _ at 95 cents an hour. That's when he bought Downing's Forge.
He put in a showroom full iron furniture, stoves and fireplaces. His window guards, custom decorations and fencing went into thousands of area homes.
He installed grillwork in Disney World, the main gates and about a dozen other gates at Busch Gardens, along with "specialty" fencing.
"We put up one fence to keep people safe from alligators and a second fence to keep alligators safe from people."
This week he was doing what he always does: looking for another Mike Kubacko.
A good iron mechanic, Lamping says, is not like a good plumber or electrician. He must have knowledge, and he must be an artist. "Artistic but with common sense _ not a combination you come across very often."
This week, there was another ad in the paper for mechanics. A tall, uncertain young man was one of the applicants. He did not have huge arms; he was not monosyllabic.
Lamping took him behind the showroom into the huge airplane hangar of a workshop. "Can you make a spiral stairway out of those?" He pointed to several lengths of two-inch pipe. Each length was 20-feet or more and twisted like a snake.
"Yeah, I think so," said the young man, without conviction. He arranged to come back for a test.
Lamping didn't think the young man would pass. "You can't find good mechanics any more," he said. "The great days for this business are over."