In which I travel to Chapel Mountain Nursery to interview a modern-day blacksmith

As many of you out there know, I am a voracious reader and have been since I can remember.

Two of the first books I ever read on my own were “The Golden Book of Dinosaurs” and “Greek Mythology for Kids.”

I selected the former on my own because I was utterly obsessed with dinosaurs as a child.

The latter was a gift from my parents who were both English teachers and eager to pry my attention away from Tyrannosaurus Rex for even a few minutes.

Forged in Fire

I vividly recall turning the pages of my new book for the first time.

As usual, I was hunkered down under the bed covers, reading with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep.

Anyway, this particular “children's book” had some pretty vivid illustrations, several of which have stayed with me to this day.

One of those pictures was of Hephaestus. He's the Greek god of blacksmiths and better known to most of us as Vulcan.

I'm not sure exactly why (as most parents will attest, the malleable mind of a child has reasons of its own!) but, I was fascinated with that photo.

Even as I progressed through the book, I kept returning to the picture of Hephaestus and his pointed ears. He was pounding away on an anvil with his hammer … a huge bellows and forge in the background … flames everywhere in his volcanic lair.

That photo made a big impression on me. It fueled yet another fascination in a child's mind, that of the powerful blacksmith … the man who forges steel in fire, shoes war horses for battle and creates magical swords from molten metal.

It's an image that stoked my imagination and fed the flames of interest for my latest adventure.

Modern Day Vulcan

This past weekend, I traveled deep into the woods of northern Wayne County in search of a modern-day Vulcan.

After a long, dusty drive along the back roads of Manchester Township, I finally arrived at my destination in Equinunk.

A large crowd had gathered on the grounds of Chapel Mountain Nursery to witness a presentation by Tracy Vannoy, a 21st century blacksmith from Quinton, New Jersey.

The event was organized by the Equinunk Historical Society.

Vannoy is 70-years-old. He spent the last three decades of his professional life as chemistry manager at a nuclear power plant.

A big, affable man, Tracy first became interested in blacksmithing after retiring three years ago. He's clad in a battered black bowler hat, suspenders and well-worn khaki work pants.

Vannoy wears heavy, white-rimmed sunglasses to shield his eyes from the flames and thick leather gloves to protect his hands.

The tools of his trade (anvil, hammers, tongs, iron, steel and fire) are carefully arranged all around him.

A cleverly improvised fire pit that uses a lawnmower deck and hairdryer combine to supply all the heat he needs to work his magic.

There is no connection to blacksmithing in Tracy's family; it's just something he developed an interest in independently.

“The first thing I did was take a class at Peters Valley School of Craft,” he said, his audience looking on in rapt attention as he hammers a red-hot horseshoe on his anvil.

“That's how it all began. I like doing things with my hands. It's a lot of hard work, but it's also a lot of fun. Even as hot as it is here today, I'd much rather be doing this than sitting at a desk somewhere.”

Vannoy's skills have improved greatly since that first visit to the craft school.

While he's become adept at most aspects of his trade, Tracy's favorite pastime is creating “lawn art.”

Examples of his work were available for purchase at the presentation. I brought a horseshoe he'd painstakingly turned into a heart for my grandson.

He volunteers once a week as the blacksmith for Batsto Village, an historic site located in the Wharton State Forest (NJ).

“It's like anything else,” he said modestly. “The more you practice, the more you actually do it, the better you become.”

Smiling Host

This day is undeniably hot, but folks who've driven into the country don't really seem to mind.

Peter Grunn, the Master Gardener who's carved Chapel Mountain Nursery out of this wilderness, acts as smiling host.

He chats quietly with his guests while handing out glasses of ice-cold well water … just the ticket for such a sweltering June afternoon.

Peter and his partner are in the process of creating an artistic oasis in the middle of the woods. He graciously took the time to show me around the grounds.

The only structure on this entire property when they began was something Peter laughingly refers to as a “shack.” Safe to say, it's come a long way since those humble beginnings.

Accompanied by my newest four-legged friend (Darwin, an amiable redbone coonhound), Peter and I stroll along the gravel walkways. We pass through the young nursery itself, then wander over to the shop, which is still a work in progress.

There are fascinating objects everywhere you look … from beautiful trees and flowers outside to antiques and curiosities inside.

We shake hands before I depart and Peter hands me his card. The quote on its back provides a perfect description for Chapel Mountain Nursery:

“Line. Form. Texture. Color. Unity. Scale. Balance and Simplicity.”

Each of these words can be used to describe Peter Grunn's creations and those of Tracy Vannoy.

If you'd like to learn more about events at the nursery, please visit the website at chapelmountain.com or email chapelmountain@gmail.com.