Forged in fire: retired educator teaches blacksmithing to Rowan County

Published 12:07 am Tuesday, May 7, 2024

ROCKWELL — Hanging in front of James “Jeep” Sabo’s house is a handmade sign that reads, “Jeep’s Forge School of Blacksmithing.” Behind his inconspicuous house is a small village of sheds and shops where Sabo fires up his forges and toils over whatever he’s pounding on at that moment.

Jeep’s Forge School of Blacksmithing allows everyday people the opportunity to take classes on blacksmithing, tinsmithing or woodworking to create something with their own hands. 

“I’ve been doing it for years and years,” Sabo said. “It’s really a part-time business, a hobby. It’s great stress management. You get out here and beat the heck out of a piece of metal, it does wonders. If you mess something up, unless you burn it up, you heat it back up and start over and it’s no big deal,” Sabo said.

Sabo has operated Jeep’s Forge since 1988 and has been in Rowan County for nearly 30 years teaching both basic and advanced blacksmithing courses to whoever doesn’t mind getting a little dirty and breaking a sweat. Sabo has a doctorate in education and taught physical education, sports medicine and physical science in high school and college before he retired in 2021. 

“It’s something different, blacksmithing is different. You got to use both hands, you got hold the metal with one hand, hammer in the other. You got to have some strength and you got to have a little creativity,” Sabo said.

Sabo’s father was a machinist and he did woodworking in high school and that eventually prepared him for when he met the “resident blacksmith” at Salem College in the 1980s who taught him the tricks of the trade. That initial meeting led Sabo down a decades-long path of learning, teaching and growing his own business. 

For his beginner classes, Sabo goes over how to make hooks and forks and for his more advanced courses, he has his participants make handles, hinges and pintles. At Jeep’s Forge, people are able to operate his coal forges, his presses and hammer glowing hot metal on an anvil that looks like the ones from old cartoons. 

“I really try to hammer in the basics,” Sabo said. “I’ve had doctors in. I had a little OBGYN come here. I had pharmacists (and) attorneys. I’ve had regular Jane Does and Joe Shmoes come in, retired people, I’ve had 12-year-olds come. So, I’ve got a little gamut of everybody.”

Sabo’s professional teaching background has inspired him to provide this service for people seeking to discover a new skill or as a team building activity for companies and organizations. He mixes old and new techniques to paint an accurate picture of what modern day blacksmithing looks like. He may give his students homework, but he lets them take whatever they make home with them. 

“I have taught for so long, I just enjoy teaching, I enjoy working with kids or students. Whether it’s a 12year-old, I had an 82-year-old general practitioner,” Sabo said. “I just enjoy showing the knowledge of what it was way back when, but yet, we still do the same thing they did 100, 200, 300, 400 years ago.”

Besides teaching, Sabo said he sells most of what he makes. Currently, he is preparing for a few shows he’s going to in the fall. He is also thinking about offering a class where he’ll teach how to construct antique cooking tools. For Sabo, the reason he’s been teaching blacksmithing since the Reagan administration isn’t because of the money, it’s for the chance to pass along his passion to someone willing to understand it. 

“We try to have a good time. It’s all about fun,” Sabo said.

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