Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blacksmith, architect, model builder, preservationist, Ross pounds it out with precision

There is a Finish proverb that holds 'No one is a blacksmith when they are born.' But sometimes, a deep interest in history, a gift for precision, strong focus on detail, and an opportunity to learn — point folks in that direction.  Lowell Ross, of Woodland Park, was practicing the craft Saturday afternoon Oct. 11, at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry, near Northgate Road and I-25. 
"It hasn't been working much since the 1990s," Ross said of the WMMI smith works, as he pounded out several curved knives at demonstrations during the weekend harvest festival. He thinks he might have been the last one operating it, in about 2001.
"Our Blacksmith shop is now up and running and we had blacksmithing demonstrations this weekend at our Reynolds Ranch Harvest Festival," said WMMI director Jeff Tapparo about Friday's and Saturday's (Oct. 10 and 11) events. 
Ross said there are eventual plans to restore completely, the complex line shaft machine shop that incorporates trip wheels, clutch mechanisms, and flat belts to power grinders, drills and other equipment.
He picked up the trade watching a few old timers that knew a thing or two about black smithing and the skills go hand-in-hand with his day job.  He is an architect with Fine Line Design Studio, LLC,  of Woodland Park. 
"I’ve been a practicing architect for years, designing commercial and residential structures throughout the world.  I have also been building professional commercial models for clients all over the county."  He also professes a love of history that has helped in the creation of Anvil Mountain Models, a sideline that develops historically accurate scale models.  
"I started scratch building scale models in my early childhood, winning my first model contest at age 14.  Since then many of my models have won national awards  – best of show and several first place awards at National Narrow Gauge Conventions.  Being an architect, I offer well thought out kits with innovative and time saving techniques and clear comprehensive instructions.""At a very early age my family spent our free time exploring old ghost towns and mine sites, fostering a love for historic structures.  Since childhood I’ve continued to explore old mine sites and ghost towns throughout the United States, and have spent countless hours hiking to hundreds of remote mills/mines/ghost towns," he said.
"My personal sketch books are full of detail drawings documenting these sites and great old structures.  Living in Colorado allows me the opportunity to continue exploring many historic sites.   In the 1990’s I lived in Telluride and Ouray Colorado during which I fell in love with the history and beauty of the San Juan Mountains.  Since then I have spent a considerable amount of time researching and documenting many of the structures throughout the San Juan's – many of which are from Silverton." 
"The kits I offer come from these years of research and documentation. I personally model Otto Mears' three railroads with a special emphasis on the Silverton Northern.  Many of the kits offered and future offerings will reflect my personal interests."
To top that off, he is also restoring, in his shop locally, RGS Inspection Car #1, rebuilt from a converted Model T Ford, as an inspection vehicle for Superintendent W.D. Lee on the Rio Grande Southern. Although not a Goose, the forerunner perhaps led to development. It rolled into the Dolores River according to the lore in 1913, and Lee and his wife jumped before it hit the water. Road Master J. C. Gilland didn't, and was seriously hurt. Mrs. Lee reportedly refused to ride it after that mishap, saying it bounced too much. In 1925, it was wrecked again, this time, beyond repair, and was scrapped.
Locally, his accurate scale models appear in the Cripple Creek Heritage Center, a complex replica of the Will Rodgers Shrine of the Sun for  El Pomar, and new project that will replicate the tram line at the Buffalo Boy Mine for the Silverton Northern Interpretive Center. 
Ross said he started smithing in the 1990s when he wanted to create historically accurate brackets for one of his buildings and hired a blacksmith to build them. "They asked me if I wanted to give them a hand, and that was the start of it. "
 He says that typically, blacksmithing was a trade learned as master/apprentice but there are not those same opportunities available today. He estimates he spends about 1,200 to 1,500 hours a year at the craft — usually at three or four hours at a time, because it takes long time to get the forge hot. 
He would eventually like to develop it, as a business, perhaps with architectural hardware development as the focus. 
He has a lean-to type shop at home and plans for whole new building, where he might incorporate the use of two vintage air hammers (a 100-pound and 50-pound, the largest weighs nearly 4,000 pounds and takes up significant space. Plans also include line (modeled after the ones used from about 1918 to 1930) that enables him to run his other vintage equipment via flat belts and other related technology of the period... "my own mechanical mini-museum." 
Ross says a person can get into to smithing for near nothing, by using makeshift equipment in the form of an anvil made of railroad rail for $50 to $80, and brake drum modified  to become a bellows for the forge. But vintage anvils now go for about $5 per pound (which adds up with the weight of an anvil) and other equipment that was often scrapped in '70s and '80s as blacksmithing was seen somewhat of a 'dying art.'
Today, there has been a major resurgence. 
"Historically, it was fixing tools and making tools, wheelwrights, ferriers, and such. But recently there is a new-found appreciation for the art aspects based on raw skill and craftmanship. It goes along well with my work as an architect with the expression of joinery of materials, it is an easy transition..."
As an architect, the overlap for him is manifested in the economy of architectural preservation, joinery of timbers, and old-fashioned arts, used to build structures that place emphasis on beauty of material, structure and details. "Instead of taking any two pieces of material and unceremoniously slapping them together," Ross said.
Structures that locally that demonstrate some of that forethought include work that he has collaborated on including Keller Williams building in Woodland Park, structures at Sturman Industries, Focus on the Family, and many Church buildings all along the Front Range.

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