My An Arkie's Faith column from the March 21, 2018, issue of The Mena Star.
Washington, Arkansas is a peaceful tree-shaded town and one of the most amazing historic places in Arkansas. The old town still looks like the 19th century with plank board sidewalks and streets that have never been paved. Most of the town is now a part of Historic Washington State Park. It is commonly referred to as Old Washington. In the State Park, there are over thirty restored historic structures including the oldest building in Arkansas built of hand-hewn timber.
From its establishment in 1826, Washington was an important stop for pioneers traveling to Texas. Frontiersmen James Bowie, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett all traveled through Washington on their way to the Alamo. Houston planned parts of the revolt strategy in a tavern in Washington during 1834. James Black, a local blacksmith, is credited with creating the legendary Bowie knife carried by Jim Bowie at his blacksmith shop in Washington.
Following the capture of Little Rock by the Union Army in 1863, the Confederate government moved the state government offices to Hot Springs for a short time, then moved the state government to Washington, making it the Capital of Confederate Arkansas from 1863-1865. When the railroad that connected much of the state with Little Rock was built in the late 19th century, it was eight miles from Washington. Because it was no longer on the main travel route, Washington began a slow decline. Most of the businesses in Washington moved to Hope, Arkansas, which was on the railroad.
In 1958, townspeople formed the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation to preserve the town's old structures. The once thriving community that had served as the capitol of Arkansas during the Civil War was now home to less than 300 people. In 1973 the area became an Arkansas State Park. The park contains 54 vintage buildings, 30 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
For the past fifty years, the town of Washington has held a Jonquil Festival each spring. My wife and I attended this year’s festival. It was a warm sunny day, and the tiny town was crowded with thousands of people. The event included arts and crafts vendors, food, music, a car show and a tractor show. Many of the historic homes were open for tours.
At the old blacksmith shop, there were several blacksmiths giving demonstrations. I enjoyed watching the blacksmiths at work. My wife’s grandfather was born in 1855 and was a blacksmith by trade in Stratton, Colorado. Her Dad said that when he was a boy, you could hear his father’s anvil ringing all over town. When the anvil quit ringing, you had better get home. It was time for supper.
As I watched the blacksmith at work, he took a flat bar of steel and shaped it into a knife. He placed the bar of steel into the glowing coals until the steel was red hot. Then he took the steel out of the coals and shaped it on the anvil by beating it with a hammer. The process had to be repeated many times to shape the bar of steel into a knife.
When a blacksmith is working with metal, the only way that he can shape it if he has heated it in the fire. In Isaiah 44:12 (NKJV) the Bible says that “the blacksmith with the tongs works one in the coals, fashions it with hammers, and works it with the strength of his arms.” And in Isaiah 48:10 (NIV) God says, “I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” Have you ever felt like you were being tested in the furnace of affliction? I know I have.
As the blacksmith at Old Washington was demonstrating his craft, he stuck the metal he was shaping deep into the burning coals and cranked the bellows until the coals flared up in brilliant flames. The metal bar glowed bright orange from the intense heat. He pulled it from the heat, explaining that the metal needed to be hot enough to be pliable but that he didn't want to melt it. Swinging around to his anvil, he shaped the metal bar with carefully placed blows from his hammer. I watched as he made mental calculations as to the amount of heat and the points of impact needed to form the metal to the shape he wanted.
The blacksmith would heat the metal, rough out the basic shape, inspect his work and heat it again to focus on the details. It was interesting to see a simple length of metal rod being converted into something useful. It had no resemblance to the plain bar it once had been.
Gentle Reader, I can't say that I enjoy the heat, but I’m thankful that God is refining and shaping my life. Steel in the hand of a skilled blacksmith is malleable and not resilient. If the steel was resilient, then it would always bounce back to its original shape and be useless to anybody. I want to be useful, and the only way for a bar of steel to be transformed into something useful is to be put in the fire and shaped on the anvil. Remember that if you are being tried and shaped in the fires of life, that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Philippians 2:13 (NRSV)
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