Minnesota business lets veterans try blacksmithing for free
By ALYSSA ZACZEK | The St. Cloud Times | Published: November 18, 2017
AVON, Minn. — Hot coals, molten iron and the clang of metal on metal. This is therapy, blacksmith-style.
Ken and MaryLou Zitur have owned Ken's Custom Iron since 1988, creating ironwork and metal fabrication for home and business use, as well as products for use by other blacksmiths.
"We went all hell's bells into it together, Ken and I," MaryLou Zitur told the St. Cloud Times . "We've spent every moment together since."
Now, they're opening their doors to veterans with a yen for blacksmithing — for free.
At their "Blacksmithing for Veterans" event Nov. 10, nearly 60 veterans packed into the Zitur family's workshop space for an open-forge experience that allows them to work at one of five stations, ask questions and socialize.
"I know my dad has had it in his heart to honor vets since I came back from active duty," said the Ziturs' daughter, Samantha Rule, who served in the U.S. Air Force and now works as a customer care manager for her parents' shop with her husband, Justin.
"We're really honored to be able to host this," Rule said. "It's not about us; it's about the veterans. We can't say enough how appreciative we are for them and their service."
The idea to host a free event for veterans stemmed from a study discovered by Ken Zitur, which indicated that blacksmithing may be therapeutic for veterans suffering from PTSD.
"I think what's special about blacksmithing is that it helps mentally and physically — you have to focus all your attention on the task, because there's so much that can go wrong," Rule said.
Blacksmithing is also a low-cost hobby for beginners, according to MaryLou Zitur.
"You don't need a lot of money to do it," she said. "Even if you can't afford an anvil to pound on, you just need a sturdy piece of metal and a hammer."
She said the hot iron and the forge can be mesmerizing.
Over the course of the event, Ken Zitur gave demonstrations on how to handle coal fires and hot metals, how to hammer and more.
"When you're in the shop, you've got to assume everything is hot," Ken Zitur told the group, a sentiment that was met with some knowing chuckles. "To find out, what I do is test it with the back of my hand. That way, if I get a burn, it's on the back of my hand, and I can still pick up my work."
Attendees didn't need to have any blacksmithing experience to attend the workshops; safety glasses and ear plugs were handed out at the door, and then beginners and experts alike could roam from station to station, or simply watch.
Justin Schottmuller had purchased several blacksmithing books before he was deployed to Baghdad with the National Guard.
"I was going to come home, build my own forge, the whole thing," Schottmuller said.
When he returned home after his service, a gift of a blacksmithing class and all he had read while abroad motivated him to attend all the local blacksmithing events he could find.
Schottmuller said he doesn't quite know what it is about blacksmithing that calls to him — especially because he comes from a family of carpenters and woodworkers — but his friend Paul Petersen was able to put his own interest in the craft into words.
"[Blacksmiths] are taking a piece of raw metal from anywhere, and making it into something beautiful," Petersen said. Petersen also served in Baghdad with the National Guard, though not alongside Schottmuller.
"I was flipping through channels and caught 'Forged in Fire,'" said Petersen. "I was hooked immediately."
"Forged in Fire" is a competition show centered on blacksmithing that airs on the History Channel. Rule said local interest in the craft has spiked since the show gained popularity.
"It has been kicking off like crazy," said MaryLou Zitur. "We started doing small classes 14 years ago, and those would have two or three people in them. Now we have 12 classes with 10 people per class."
Rule added that four of those courses are female-only classes. She said that she's excited to help host a space for women to experiment with the craft together.
"People tend to think blacksmithing is a male-dominated craft," Rule said. "But women can do it, too, and it's really cool to see them come together over that."
But at the workshop, men and women alike were coming together over their military service and their interest in blacksmithing. Petersen said its "fantastic" that the Zitur family would hold an event with veterans in mind.
"It's such a good feeling to know that people still have that respect," he said. "It's good to know people still feel appreciation."