Blacksmith, Welder, Philosopher.

By Christopher Briscoe

On a hot August day in 1990, Dennis deBey was kind enough to accept my invitation to photograph him in my studio. I had asked him to bring along a few props - tools of his trade. He parked his truck out back and began dragging in welding torches, acetylene tanks, hoses, hammers and an anvil that was so heavy I feared it might fall through my floor.

Here's what Dennis had to say 25 years ago.

I moved here from Arcadia, California, so I could keep going to school. It was the time of the Vietnam War and I was very involved with anti-war and conscientious objections. Before they changed the law to “strong moral beliefs” from “religious beliefs,” I was unable to get conscientious objector status. But, after I moved to Ashland, they changed it to “strong moral beliefs,” so I applied through my draft board in Pasadena. This was 1968. I had studied natural resource management. Southern Oregon State College had a masters degree program in outdoor education. All my life I wanted to be a naturalist and explain nature to people and show them the beauty of what nature has to offer.

I’ve been a blacksmith for about 14 years. I fell in love with wood stoves when I came to live in Ashland, back when wood stoves were okay. I took a night school class in welding. I collected parts and started building wood stoves. I opened my shop because I’d collected a bunch of parts, and wanted to make stoves out of recycled parts. Being pretty successful at it, I met a lot of people. I got the parts at a rock-bottom price, and I’d just piece them together and make nice looking stoves out of them. I was trying to create something out of the junk and recycle things. It was a real appropriate technology.

He was kind of a strange character. Some blacksmiths are.

Soon after opening my shop, a blacksmith came along and said, “It’s a good fit for a blacksmith to do what you’re doing with wood stoves.” He taught me a little bit. He was kind of a strange character. Some blacksmiths are. But by the time he left, I had already bought an anvil and was inspired.

I like to transform things that are broken or are no longer usable into something that works. People come to me with things that are broken. They usually have some attachment to the piece or maybe it’s some antique or something that they’ve had for a long time. They see some life in it. I can bring that life. I’m sort of a wizard.

There’s something about a blacksmith’s shop that attracts people who just need to come in and hang out. My shop offers that sort of atmosphere. It’s comfortable and unique enough where, as soon as you’re in there, you’re not in the twentieth century world any more. Once I had a biker and a policeman in my shop at the same time. One guy is totally covered with tattoos and the other guy is an off-duty cop. They both worked on my rig for about a half-an-hour, doing some electrical checking. These two elements of our society came together in a harmonious way, all three of us working together.

I like to think that I’m walking lightly.

Variety is important. That’s what I think keeps people in Ashland. It’s so stimulating. You don’t get bored doing the same thing all the time. It’s sort of a soft place, too. I like to think that I’m walking lightly. I’m hoping to inspire people to do the same. I can keep lowering the ante for life, making it easier for people by fixing things rather than buying new.

At first glance, he looked almost exactly the same

Nearly 25 years later, I found Dennis in his blacksmith forge, still working in Ashland, Orgeon. At first glance, he looked almost exactly the same as he did when he lugged his anvil into my photography studio in 1990. With more gray in his beard, more lines in a classic, weathered face, everything else about him seemed unchanged. One thing for sure, Dennis still had the bright smile mirroring the passion for his craft. When I first photographed him, he had been pounding the orange hot metal for 14 years. Add another quarter century to that and the true sum is beyond any math problem. The man loves what he does.

Dennis deBey, 2014
Created By
Christopher Briscoe

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