2012-03-15 / Opinions

Across The Savannah

The Poetry That Is Ironwork
By TOM POLAND

What have man wrought? Well let’s start with iron, wrought iron. Favored for ornamental fences and gates it’s an aspect of the South that’s as southern as biscuits and molasses, as southern as sunshine and magnolias.

For a long time I thought wrought iron had one purpose: to give cemeteries a secure and attractive enclosure. My earliest memories of wrought iron fences go back to the cemeteries in Lincoln County. I saw enough of these stately fences around cemeteries to get that notion firmly in my head. And I well remember a wrought iron fence up at Beulah Baptist church because my cousin, Larry Walker, gashed his leg climbing over that fence when he was a boy.

Aside from teaching boys lessons, wrought iron has long served mankind well, providing an elegant way to partition properties. Wrought iron’s long, illustrious history stretches back to the Romans in fact. Ageless beauty and function in one fell swoop, that’s wrought iron.


Strong enough to kill a cedar. Photo by T. Poland Strong enough to kill a cedar. Photo by T. Poland Sometimes called puddled or charcoal iron, wrought iron is the blacksmith’s traditional material of choice. It is a mixture of nearly pure iron with up to five percent slag that takes the form of linear fibers. This iron alloy has traits that give it a grain much like wood. It resists corrosion and seldom breaks. It’s soft, malleable, and easily worked. That’s why it’s ideal for delicate artwork.

One definition of “wrought” is “worked by hand” and that certainly proves true of wrought iron, which has long been melted and hammered by blacksmiths. I’ve written before about Cap Dunn, the old blacksmith who worked across the Augusta Highway from my Dad’s saw shop when I was a boy. Cap made me a set of horseshoes that my sister, Brenda, famously used to brain me in the head one day when were tossing shoes. That was my worst exposure to wrought iron you could say.

My better exposures have been as a writer describing beautiful gates made by a true artist. Many southern cities are renowned for their wrought iron fences and gates. Savannah comes to mind but one city towers over the rest when it comes to wrought iron artistry. That would be Charleston. The photo-essay books that Robert Clark and I do feature wrought iron artistry from Charleston. Our new book, underway now, will feature an ornate gate coaxed from iron by a blacksmith who propelled his calling into the high, rarified realm of art. What was once considered a trade became an art largely thanks to this man, and that would be the incomparable Phillip Simmons, a black man whose artistry graces the Holy City from one end to the other.

Simmons died in 2009 but the legacy of this poet of ironwork endures. His work is so much a part of Charleston’s character a foundation exists to preserve the man’s legacy and craft. His story inspires anyone with a love for the arts. His story inspires anyone who comes form humble beginnings. Want to make something of your life? Open your eyes and look at the world around you. Simmons did.

Phillip Simmons came into this world June 9, 1912, in a place called Wando on Daniel Island. That’s close by Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. His grandparents raised him. At the age of eight, Simmons began taking the ferry to Charleston to live with his mother on Vernon Street. His daily walks to school brought ironworks to his attention. Many craftsmen lived and worked in his neighborhood. They found opportunities to work along the Charleston waterfront. As a kid Simmons visited blacksmith shops, pipefitters, coppers, and other area craftsmen. The blacksmith shops most attracted his attention. He would go on to study ironworking and become Charleston’s most celebrated blacksmith. Simmons fashioned more than five hundred decorative pieces of ornamental wrought iron: gates, fences, balconies, and window grills. For sure his work wasn’t limited to bordering cemeteries, not at all.

Simmons had what some call the “it factor.” He had “it.” A spark burns in some people. They find a way to make a living making art. Simmons could have been content with forging tools for his fellow workers but he wasn’t. He brought a tender touch to the melting of metal and art blossomed. In a way he helped make Charleston Charleston.

Sometimes well-deserved honor comes to those who long labor in the shadows. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed Simmons with a National Heritage Fellowship in 1982. A blues group sang and played musical instruments at the ceremony. During his acceptance speech, Simmons said, “My instrument is an anvil. I guess some of you have heard me play ... a tune on the anvil, the old blacksmith tune. I’m proud of that anvil, really proud. That anvil fed me when I was hungry and that anvil clothed me when I was naked. That anvil put shoes on my feet.”

Eloquent words from an artist in iron, a man whose work is southern through and through. I’ve heard an anvil play that old bell-like tolling melody. It would ring out across the Augusta Highway from Cap Dunn’s little shop. I would cross the highway and go up to the grove of oaks shading his small blacksmith shop and watch him hammer cherry red iron into implements. Cap and Simmons never met but what a conversation they might have had. I can see the two gents sitting beneath the oaks talking. Their calloused hands move through the air as they describe their creations ... Perhaps Simmons invites Cap to come down to Charleston. Alas, they are gone.

All the old smithies are dead or dying ... You can still get wrought iron though, pseudo wrought iron. You can get wrought iron today from China. I saw an advertisement for a company proclaiming it sells Italian-quality wrought iron at China prices. This company sells stamped spears, forged pickets, scrolls, rosettes, and rings, and gate accessories like hinges and wheels. Well they can keep it in China.

Sure, the ability to mass produce things creates more affordable products. It also creates eyesores. I present perhaps the most unattractive fence man has wrought: aluminum chain link fences. They look the same everywhere, which is to say awful. And durable they are not. One falling pine limb can bring the contraption down. A stout wrought iron fence? It’s can withstand most anything. Look at the photograph accompanying this column. That aged, rusted wrought iron fence has withstood the growth of a cedar tree.

I’ll take an old rusted wrought iron fence any day to a shiny, cheap chain link fence. The former is art, the latter is junk. I’m certain Phillip Simmons would agree. The soft lines and symmetry he gave iron found its way to the Smithsonian Institution. You won’t find a chain link fence there except maybe around the parking lot. A wrought iron fence is poetry; a chain link fence? Gibberish at best. God forbid someone decides to put one around an old cemetery. What a travesty that would be.

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