Love at first strike: Moorhead blacksmith connects with family history
MOORHEAD—Ralf Mehnert-Meland wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
Now, he just needs to step into his garage in south Moorhead to follow through on a lifelong wish to be a blacksmith.
The 52-year-old business law professor at Concordia College grew up in Germany, moving to the U.S. about 30 years ago. A blacksmith's shop was just down the street in his hometown, and Mehnert-Meland worked with him as a teenager, though it meant cleaning the forge instead of wielding a hammer.
He got his chance seven years ago when a sister-in-law invited him to a blacksmithing event in Deerwood, Minn.
It was love at first strike, and he did everything he could to get better. He started buying tools at auctions, set up a makeshift forge in his attached garage, connected with the Minnesota Guild of Metalsmiths and learned the craft.
It wasn't until a few years later during a visit to his father in Germany that he finally understood his interest—three of his four grandparents had ancestors in the trade going back 400 years, and one was the main blacksmith for a Swedish king in the 1600s.
"Maybe that explains why I just loved it," he said.
Mehnert-Meland said he always felt like the black sheep in his family. He's the only one in his immediate family who isn't an engineer or scientist, and he's a handy guy who wasn't afraid to pick up rebar and hammers for his new trade.
"For me, blacksmithing allows me to do something with my hands and to finish something," he said. "My software's never finished, and the law's never finished."
Martin Pansch, president of the Minnesota Guild of Metalsmiths with about 325 members, said it isn't uncommon today for people in their middle age or older to discover blacksmithing. Some guild members got into it during retirement, when they had more free time and disposable income.
"We've almost got a separate wing of people who are retired from 3M," he joked about the Twin Cities-based group's membership. "We've got people retired from the railroad, engineers, artists."
Interest in blacksmithing and the other metal trades tends to see ups and downs, Pansch said. Last year's premiere of "Forged in Fire," a TV competition series featuring bladesmiths, prompted many younger people to start attending demonstrations and try to make swords.
But it's not a trade that offers much immediate gratification, Pansch said, and many don't stick it out beyond an afternoon workshop.
"You don't get a lot of people who are willing to put in the years that are required to get good at blacksmithing," he said.
Recipe for success
Mehnert-Meland's wife, Karen, has been a good sport about her husband's work in the garage.
"She lets me buy hammers," he joked, but with dozens of tools around the shop, it's not much of an exaggeration.
In return, Mehnert-Meland has made objects that Karen likes, including a railroad spike he turned into a decorative spoon. He also crafted a garden ornament that includes one of the rocks collected by Karen's late sister.
Mehnert-Meland enjoys the endless learning that comes with blacksmithing. He's started collecting books, some 100 years old, to learn new recipes and techniques.
He said he's benefited from a relatively new development in the ancient trade: a willingness to share secrets. In the past, not much was written down, and specific recipes or tricks were only passed down from masters to apprentices.
That all changed as the trade was declining during the Industrial Revolution, and blacksmiths realized they had to keep the knowledge alive.
The trade has been helped by even newer developments, including online videos and communication that make it easier than ever to learn, he said. Modern technology also means Mehnert-Meland can use a cheaper and safer small propane-powered forge in his garage in place of burning charcoal or coal.
But it remains a largely old-fashioned craft, and he said it still requires the same ingredients of metal, heat, a hammer or another tool to hit with, and something to hit on, such as an anvil.
Seven years after pursuing his interest in blacksmithing, Mehnert-Meland said he's still learning. For now, he makes things—knives, fire pokers, spoons—and gives them away.
As he gets closer to retirement, he hopes to make this a self-sustaining hobby by selling his creations.
"There's a lot of people willing to spend money and pay for something that they know has even made by a person, not by a machine or not by a person that they don't even know," he said.
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