Village Smithy - Francis R. Anson
Wed, 10/25/2023 - 10:25am admin
Some people, especially in small communities, are so proficient, and in this case, so persistent in their line of work they are recognized or identified by their profession. Francis Randolph Anson was the name that came to mind in Willow Springs when a blacksmith was spoken of. For almost seventy years, he was identified as our "village smithy."
An ancient art, home blacksmithing was part of our Scotch-Irish settler tradition. In unsettled areas, it was necessary to keep a farm running, and many coming to the Ozarks as family or community groups brought along someone with blacksmithing skills.
In archaeological digs of early homesteads in this region, Dr. Jim Price noted that people thought to be quite frugal were wasteful of broken items that could be easily repaired. Instead, they were replaced. They would fire up the charcoal pit in the yard, make another tool, and throw away the old one. As time passed and communities grew, someone found enough smithing needs to open a business.
Anson wasn't the first blacksmith in Howell County, training as an apprentice in 1903 at eighteen in the shop of Tom Coker in Willow Springs. In his youth, he was nicknamed "Fat," though I have a hard time imagining he was ever overweight. He was small in stature but muscular, possessing excellent upper-body strength.
Anson's first shop was on Harris Street in a wooden building behind and attached to the three-story building now housing the Willow Tree Café.
In September 1946, Anson was visited by the Girl Scout Brownies. The Willow Springs News reported, "After roll call, the Brownies visited the local blacksmith shop. The main attraction was the "Flaming Forge," where Mr. Anson was heating horseshoes to the proper temperature before shoeing a horse. He explained that the shoes came from the factory unfinished because the horses in different localities needed different types of shoes. The girls examined the tools used to shoe a horse and the rasp used to file the horse's hoof."
Fatty made the paper again in 1953, observing his fiftieth anniversary as a blacksmith. The Willow Springs News wrote, "Horseshoeing was the best part of the business for the first twenty-five or thirty years, and he reports that he remembers as many as five blacksmith shops operating at the time here. He is believed to be the only resident in (Willow Springs) the same line of work for fifty years."
Anson saw a lot of change as the town grew. At first, most of his business was shoeing massive workhorses. He put shoes on many mules and some oxen when they were used as work animals. In 1909, he moved his shop onto Second or Main Street, but the growth of the town and his business made him move again to the alley back of the former Willow Springs Lumber Company.
In 1968, as plans for the Willow Springs Centennial were finalized, the Chamber of Commerce awarded him a plaque honoring his sixty-six years of service to the community. He rode in a place of honor in a horse-drawn coach in the 1969 centennial parade. He was also asked to make a wagon tongue for a centennial wagon, which he hadn't been called on to do for many years. It was no effort for him, even at the age of eighty-five.
About this time, the late Hank Marvin wrote a letter to Ira Wilbanks, the editor of the Willow Springs News, relating his experiences with Fat. He wrote, "Dear Ira, My father died when I was about six years old, and Mr. Anson (as I referred to him then) was one of several men who sort'a took me over. I always liked to make things, and many, many times, I was trying to make something (and generally making a mess of it). Mr. Anson would stop his work and spend a lot of time helping me learn how to work with my hands."
"I remember going home with a butcher knife I had made with his help. It was never put into words, but few people could understand the pride a small boy felt simply because a grown man had treated him like an equal. I'll never forget the way my mother spoke when I told her how Mr. Anson and I had worked together. Her words: 'Mr. Anson is a fine man.' I mentioned this side of Mr. Anson's life to your wife (Jo Wilbanks) a few days ago, and she pretty well summed it up when she said, 'Those are the kind of things that make the difference in men.'" Hank Marvin passed his love of making things on to his son Bud Marvin, a skilled craftsman in his own right.
In 1961, the Willow Springs Rotary Club honored Anson as proprietor of the oldest continuous business in Willow Springs. He was accompanied by Paul Abbey, who was in business with Anson in a combination welding and blacksmith shop. Anson told the group he started as an apprentice for two dollars a week, working from 7:00 a.m. to 6 p.m. He related how he once shoed 108 horses and mules' feet in one day. Divide that number by four hooves, and you still have a ridiculous workday! He told the Rotarians that in the previous year, he had put shoes on 160 horses. He also stated that blacksmith work was becoming more of a general business, where it was once entirely horse and mule shoeing. He also told the group that he was only kicked once in all the years he had put shoes on horses.
Married in 1909 in Willow Springs by Baptist minister Billy Lovan, Francis and his wife, the former Myrtle Holland, celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1959. They made their home on a farm in the Pine Grove community for years. Myrtle taught in the Willow Springs schools for decades and was very active in social life. The Ansons moved off the farm to a home south of Willow Springs in 1959. Myrtle died in 1962. Francis Anson died at the home of his daughter in Springfield, Missouri, on January 26, 1971, at the age of eighty-six. His body was returned to Willow Springs to be buried next to his wife and son.
The Ansons had one son, Francis Anson, Jr., who was tragically killed in an industrial explosion in a DuPont factory in New Jersey in 1947. He was thirty-six years old, and his body was buried in the Willow Springs City Cemetery.
I believe no one in my community, past or present, represents "The Village Blacksmith" in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem like Fatty Anson did:
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus, on its sounding anvil-shaped
Each burning deed and thought.