Saturday, February 14, 2009

Who was the real "Village Blacksmith"? Meet Dexter Pratt, Longfellow's inspiring neighbor

People sometimes ask for names of famous blacksmiths and farriers. There are too many, history is full of them, from the gods of antiquity, Vulcan and Hephaestus, to today's highly skilled farriers using modern materials like engineers of the hoof and artisan maestros of forging like Francis Whitaker and Samuel Yellin.

But Dexter Pratt may be the most famous of them all.

For many people, their earliest images of who a blacksmith or farrier is and what s/he does were formed by the immortal words of the poem, The Village Blacksmith, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The smith in the poem seems like Everyman. Most wouldn't think that there was a real man behind the anvil in that story, but there was.

First, a refresher, in case you don't remember the poem:

Longfellow was America's most famous poet, but he was also a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he walked to and from the campus, he passed a mighty chestnut tree on Brattle Street, under which stood the modest smithy of his neighbor, Dexter Pratt. Dexter is believed to be the inspiration for the poem, along with the fact that Longfellow's own grandfather, Stephen Longfellow, was a blacksmith in Newbury, Massachusetts.

If there was a seed of inspiration for the poem somewhere in Longfellow's fertile mind, it was reinforced and enhanced every day by his encounter with the smith, who became his friend.

Longfellow's home on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts is open to the public as a National Park site. It is across and down the street from the site of what must have been several blacksmith shops in Harvard Square.

Longfellow probably wrote The Village Blacksmith in 1839; it was published in 1840. Longfellow was paid $15 for the poem by Knickerbocker magazine.

Around the same time, Longfellow met a very interesting man named Elihu Burritt, known as "The Learned Blacksmith". He was living in nearby Worcester, and Longfellow encouraged him to move to Cambridge; the poet even offered to support the blacksmith.

But Burritt turned the famous poet down. He wanted to keep working in the forge while he pursued his studies.

At one time you could buy prints and post cards of Dexter's smithy, long after it and the chestnut tree were gone. Maybe you still can.

Dexter's shop and tree probably could have become one of the greatest tourist attractions in Cambridge, except that urban planning interfered: there was a curve in the street where they stood and the city wanted to straighten it. The authorities didn't see a way around it: the big tree had to go and, with it, Dexter's shop and forge. Not even Longfellow could save it.

The big tree was cut down in the 1870s.
Longfellow's chair, made from the wood of the spreading chestnut tree.

What a day it must have been when they cut it down. Cambridge schoolchildren took up a collection to make a memento. A chair was made from the tree for Longfellow, and you can see it if you visit his house. The poet wrote the children a poem of thanks. It is an ode to the tree; it doesn't mention the blacksmith, though.

"The Village Blacksmith" has outlived Longfellow, Dexter, and the tree. And so, it turns out, have the two houses where the men lived. They're still there.

Dexter Pratt's more modest home on Brattle Street is painted almost the same color as Longfellow's, but it's not so grandiose. (Wikipedia photo)

Dexter's house at 54 Brattle Street is in the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the City of Cambridge. It is now known as "The Blacksmith House". It was built in 1808 for a blacksmith named Torrey Hancock, who sold it to Dexter Pratt. It's interesting that Pratt's daughter sold the house to a runaway slave named Mary Walker, who lived there with her family for many years.

During World War II, a bakery opened in the house, selling baked goods made by women refugees from Europe.

Over the years, The Village Blacksmith inspired a lot of people. In 1922, famed director John Ford brought The Village Blacksmith to the silver screen, in a melodramatic story based loosely on the blacksmith in the poem. The subtitle for the film was "The Blacksmith's Daughter, Falsely Accused".

Almost 100 years after Longfellow wrote the poem, a mysterious silent film pantomime of the poem appeared.  There's no documentation to go with this rough gem, which is copyrighted by the distributor as 1936 but looks to be older.

In the film, you will see first Longfellow's stately, then the more colonial home of Dexter Pratt, though I doubt it was so grand when he lived there. I don't know if the entire film was shot in Cambridge or just those buildings.

You can walk in Longfellow's footsteps down Brattle Street, and visit both houses. If you walk down the street to the Mount Auburn Cemetery, you'll find the graves of both men. A chunk of the chestnut tree is preserved in the Cambridge Public Library on Broadway.

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