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How Maine's only high school blacksmithing program is keeping the trade alive

Once a fixture in nearly every community, the blacksmith shop is now mostly a relic of the past, but for a few hobbyists and shops scattered across the state. But a small charter school in central Maine is trying to re-invigorate interest in the craft.

Over the past few years, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences has vastly expanded its blacksmithing program, which has become, for some students, a stepping stone into the trades.

Just outside the school in Hinckley, south of Skowhegan, a group of aproned students converge around four smoldering forges. Amid the din of metal on metal, 11th grader Rose Jadamec helps her friend hammer a glowing-red rod into the shape of a hook.

Jadamec remembers the excitement she felt when she started at the school two years ago, and was told she could get academic credit for learning to blacksmith.

"It was mostly that you could go out and work with things like fire, really, almost a dangerous sort of aspect to it," Jadamec said. "It's a really interesting and unique talent that you can definitely brag about. Like, I took blacksmithing in high school, how many kids can say that?"

The program began shortly after the charter school launched about twelve years ago, starting with a few kids visiting the shop of local blacksmith Dick Tessier every weeks.

Tessier passed away last year, but his family donated some of his equipment, and the school used grant funding to build a large barn on campus, transforming the program into a regular class through which instructors hope students will soon be able to earn national certification.

Instructor Tad Hagner said interest in the program has skyrocketed, with close to 40 students applying for fewer than 10 slots. Hagner said the class appeals most to kids who prefer visual learning, versus the traditional classroom approach.

"And this really is kind of a natural pathway for them because it's all very hands on," Hagner said. "Kids see it, they're like, 'Whoa.' There's fire and there's metal, and it's just a lot of fun for them to see."

There was a time when many high schools offered metal working shops, but few remain today. The program in Hinckley is believed to be the only high school blacksmithing program in Maine.

"We realized in the 70s that blacksmithing was on a ragged edge, and some people kind of revived it," said Bob Menard, the president of the trade organization New England Blacksmiths. "And they understood if we don't share this knowledge, it's not going past us."

Menard said he's encouraged that so many young people still have interest in a craft that's been growing in popularity in recent years.

"And so the whole concept of passing knowledge on to blacksmiths, regardless of their age, is firmly ingrained in the craft now," he said.

Instructor Jeff Chase said the program in Hinckley has also become a stepping stone for students. Some alumni have gone on to the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn, or taken welding jobs with local employers, such as Cianbro.

"And so they're able to do certain things with metal that they didn't think they would be able to do. And it just kind of sparked some more interest in, like, 'Okay, well I could do this. I think I could probably do some welding in the future,'" Chase said.

Last year, more than a third of students at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences were considered chronically absent, but instructor Tad Hagner said the blacksmithing program has kept kids engaged.

"Because without that, a lot of them are like, 'I'm not going to college, why do I graduate high school? Why don't I just work somewhere else?' I think it's really inspiring to see kids want to come to school every day," Hagnar said.

11th grader Rose Jadamec said she's not sure what she wants to do after high school. But she said working at a forge, with a heavy hammer, has bolstered her confidence.

"I feel like I'm not strong a lot of the times. So doing this honestly gives me a chance to feel like I can do something that takes a little bit of strength in the first place," Jadamec said.

School administrators said they'd like to incorporate blacksmithing into even more classes in the years ahead, and offer the course to all students before they graduate.