Monday, February 10, 2014

Sochi-Inspired History: The World's Largest Horseshoeing Business Was in Russia

The amazing horse light sculptures in the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony told the Russian legend of each day's sunrise being pulled across the sky by a three-horse "troika" of horses. (photo shared by Sue and Marcus)
Are you enjoying the Olympics from Russia? When you're done dissecting the triple toe loops, slopeslide 360s and what on earth they really are trying to do in a curling match, here's a story to ponder. 

Not much about the history of farriery in Russia is translated to English, so it's tough to write about, but one story stands out.

What was possibly the largest farrier business--by number of employees--in the world was in the elegant imperial city of St Petersburg, Russia before World War I. Run by an ex-pat British farrier, using the British system, William T. Sheperdson's business flourished until social, cultural and political changes made it unsafe and unprofitable for him to remain there. Not even horseshoeing would be able to escape the wave of change sweeping the world’s largest nation after World War I.

First, some background: Russia was ruled by the last of a long line of monarchs, Czar Nicholas II, until the early 20th century. Social unrest began to peak then, as it did in so many other places (including the USA), as industrialization changed society and people moved into crowded cities and mill towns.

In 1914, the czar managed to unite his huge country to fight Germany in World War I but he was forced to abdicate in 1917, as the labor-championing Bolsheviks took over.

When the war ended, a three-year national civil war erupted. In 1918, Nicholas and his family were executed.

The highly-educated Marxist (“socialist”) lawyer Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) was briefly Russia's new ruler. Lenin’s death in 1924 set the stage for his successor, hard-liner Josef Stalin, to re-organize the reformed country, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), into a true communist state, with full government takeover of businesses and farms.

In 1912, Olga Vladimirovna Rozanova painted this shoeing shop in St. Petersburg. Perhaps it was run by one of William Sheperdson's former apprentices. The painting hangs in the Russian State Museum.

If you're like me, you don't know much about the history of horseshoeing in Russia. We know that the horse population was and is huge in that country, for work and sport and racing. I will quote first from the original letter written by William T. Sheperdson possibly as late as 1917, around the time of World War I. It was published in 1918, at the end of the war. The date when he left Russia is not specified but he was lucky to escape before the revolution.

He wrote:

“Bear with me and let me tell my story as a 40-year veteran horseshoer in Russia.

Blacksmiths and farriers figure prominently in post-imperial soviet and socialist propaganda art. The smith is the idealized strong, honest urban worker; government propaganda was always trying to express solidarity between rural farmers, the military and urban industrial workers. They share the same struggle, according to the ideology.
"My great uncle, a British subject, was the first English blacksmith who made his way into Russia; the year 1836 is said to be the date. In those early days, horseshoeing in Russia was anything but scientific.

"It was not long after his arrival that he was retained by the then emperor, Nicholas I, as a teacher in the Imperial Military Cavalry Schools, where he taught scientific horseshoeing.

"He also established his own blacksmith shop. Being an Englishman, he applied English methods in Russia, by offering to take apprentices to learn the trade. He soon had a large number of boys, all of whom were bound to remain with him for five years without pay.

"He taught them to be good fitters and floormen within two years’ training and profited by the remaining time from their apprenticeships. By this method he developed good workmen who stayed with him after their time had expired.

A famous tourist attraction in Russia is the colorfully painted home of the late blacksmith Sergei Kirillov in Sverdlovsk Oblast. Watch a video walkthrough of this folkart palace. Photo by Zhuravlik.

"Horseshoeing in Russia seemed to be so profitable that he advised other Englishmen to come to St Petersburg. His advice was heeded by Messrs. Moss, Anderson, and others. St Petersburg then could boast of three large English horseshoe establishments. Each followed the apprenticeship method.

"In the year 1856, my father, who had been associated with my uncle, established his own shop. Not long afterwards, things began to change. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by Alexander II brought about many changes in the economic, commercial and business life of Russia. To obtain apprentices was no longer an easy matter. Besides, there were now four large horseshoeing establishments turning out skilled horseshoers in large numbers.

KUZNETS i PLOTNIK Artilleriisk... Digital ID: 1213314. New York Public Library
A farrier (left) at the Imperial Military
Cavalry School, in formal dress, working
with an equally formally dressed carpenter. (New York Public
Library image)
"I employed about 150 men; some were fitters, floormen, or journeymen and 50 were apprentices. We shod about 3000 horses a month.

"These same skilled workmen began, one by one, to open their own shops. Anyone of vision can see plainly that large horseshoe establishments would in time have to give way to the small shops.

"The trend of decentralization was aided through the business venture of a Mr. Possehl, a wealthy German who was the owner of ore mines, steel plants, and several horseshoe, calk and nail factories in Sweden. He came to St Petersburg with his millions and soon had control of the only firm that was then making calks and that was starting to manufacture horseshoes. This firm was Koss & Durr.

"Then Mr Possehl bought out the horse nail plant from a Mr. Barry and thus for about 20 years found himself in control of the horseshoe industry.

"The Possehl factory employed about 1000 men. They manufactured the H calk, horseshoe nails, half-readymade shoes and in more recent years, readymade shoes. They were constantly experimenting with different processes of manufacturing readymade shoes; their latest method was rolling the shoe, turning and drawing up the heel calk by machinery and welding the toe calk by electricity.

An early Bolshevik propaganda poster portraying the blacksmith as hero.
"In recent years, the output of horseshoes reached many millions per year." (Mr. Sheperdson then goes into an elaborate discussion of Possehl’s pricing structure, which allowed small shoeing shops to purchase shoes and nails for the same price as large users like himself.)

Sheherdson goes on to explain that Possehl, being German, had his factory commandeered by the czar in the early part of the war. It was converted to the manufacture of supplies for the Russian army.

He summarizes the situation in Russia for farriers at the time of World War I in this way:
  1. Apprentices are a matter of the past.
  2. Labor in Russia has become unruly.
  3. The blacksmiths that remained in the trade are less effective workers than they were formerly.
  4. Readymade shoes can be produced in quantity more cheaply than by hand.
  5. The people have been educated to a system to distribution (Possehl’s) which works well in Russia.
  6. As a result of the war, the last few large horseshoeing shops that were in business have probably now closed.
  7. Because Possehl’s factory is under Russian control, American capital could reap a splendid return by building horseshoe, calk and nail manufacturing plants in Russia to supply the demand for readymade shoes.
No one knows what became of Sheperdson, and whether he fled Russia with the shirt on his back or if he was allowed to leave as the wealthy man he must have been. He was obviously a laissez-faire capitalist who would not have fit it under socialism.

But how efficient was his business if he had 150 men working, but only 3000 horses were shod each month? That would be about one horse per worker per day, given 20 work days per moth, although they surely were working in teams and probably didn't take weekends off.

We do know a little bit about Possehl, however. The firm is still in business today; it is a multi-national metals giant mega-corporation headquartered in Lubeck, Germany.

Russian farriers received hundreds
of kegs of horseshoes stamped with an
American Indian princess's face.
An interesting footnote to Sheperdson’s story is that, after the war, Possehl was prosecuted in Germany for crimes supporting the enemy by manufacturing on behalf of Russia during the war. In an interesting defense, Possehl’s case went to the German Supreme Court and the firm was found not guilty because they argued that if they had abandoned the factories in Russia, certainly more damage against Germany would have been done.

Coinciding with the start of the war, and possibly with Possehl’s takeover by the Russian government, Juniata Horseshoes in Pennsylvania announced that they had shipped one million shoes to Russia. Then, on September 18, 1914--less than two months after the war in Europe began--100 railroad cars were loaded with horseshoe kegs.

Each wooden keg held 100 pounds of shoes, and a car would hold between 800 and 1200 kegs. Since the average shoe weighed two pounds, the Pittsburgh Press estimated that somewhere between four and six million horseshoes had been ordered in that single shipment. Before the war, the Czar’s army had boasted 785,000 horses.

Harness racing was especially popular in Russia and wealthy Russians bought American horses for export. They also hired American trainers to travel to Moscow or St Petersburg. In 1899, the Philadelphia Record reported that a young American horseshoer named Thomas Mack--who was also an American Indian--went to Moscow to work as the racehorse shoer for the czar. Mack demanded a salary of $1500 a year from the czar.

It's possible that aluminum horseshoes were first used successfully on a large scale in Russia. It wasn't very scientific, but the army shod three feet of the Finnish Dragoon horses with steel and one hoof with aluminum to test wear properties. Curiously, the aluminum shoes lasted longer than the steel ones, they were kinder to the foot, none were lost, and they could be reset. An experiment with the US military in 1895 found aluminum shoes to be too inferior for adoption.

In Russia, by the way, a farrier is a podkova; Sheperdson's giant shoeing shop in St Petersburg probably would have been known as a kusnia (smithy).

While technically Russia won the war, it was a hard-won victory and the country descended immediately into bitter civil war and hard times. It's impossible to say what became of any of those hundreds of farriers trained in St Petersburg under the British apprentice system--or what became of their knowledge or tools.

But someone somewhere knows something, and this blog has brought people out of history books and cobwebs and family trees with information before. So let's hope there is some Olympic spirit out there within the reach of this blog so the rest of Mr Sheperdson's story of shoeing in St Petersburg can be told. Or, let's go there and find out!

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