Until the advent and widespread use of engine driven transport, horses were the dominant mode of transport for most daily activities in colonial Australia. While other animals, including donkeys and camels, provided decades of sterling service, the horses were in a league of their own. Horses are often recalled as unique characters. Since medieval times, the horse required the workmanship of a blacksmith to forge horseshoes and nails. The art of blacksmithing became a staple village craft in Europe.
The pioneering pastoralists in the Esperance area were well served by the large, heavy plodding horse when clearing and developing the land. Descendants of local Aboriginal people recall stories of amazement and surprise when the first horses were seen in the district. The heavy haulage powers of these animals made it possible for the pioneering of widespread farming and fostering tolerable road surfaces. A blacksmith shop and horse stables were an essential element in the functioning of stations and early settlements.
In the late 1800s, the horse-drawn light spring carts, loaded drays, the sulky and buggy carriages were all means of transport over the sandplain. Children reared in the bush often were superb horsemen, bushmen and marksmen as they had become adept at horse riding, tracking, and attending stock, hunting and fishing.
The Dempster brothers Esperance Bay station had an established blacksmith shop open for business at the homestead. During the 1890s, other blacksmiths opened shops to meet demands, one being a man named Ike Acklund who set up opposite the Bijou Theatre. German-born Mr Ulrich and his son Richard also had a blacksmith shop located between Dempster and Windich Streets, facing onto James Street, and were known locally as excellent blacksmiths.
The Ulrichs, not being wheelwrights (a craftsman who builds or repairs wooden wheels) employed Dick Hamdorff to fashion and repair the wagon wheels. From him, the Ulrichs learnt how to make wagon, dray and sulky wheels, building a new dray for the Sinclair family, known for discovering gold around Norseman. The Ulrichs closed up their blacksmith shop when the town went into a steep decline in the early 1900s.
Around 1902 the wheelwright Dick Hamdorff was employed by E.J. McCarthy & Co. in a salt shed at Pink Lake during the period when the horse-works used in grinding salt were replaced with the first internal combustion engine in the district. The heavy fly wheel and cast iron body arrived dismantled and when the wheelwright fitted the cam shaft gears, two cogs were out of position, which meant that the engine didn't produce any power. An agent from the company it was purchased from was dispatched from Adelaide to diagnose the fault. In 1995 the disused Crossley single cylinder engine was restored to working order by the Esperance Mechanical Restoration Group and placed on display in the Esperance Museum.
At the height of the horse and wagon's day, blacksmith Alf Frazer remained on the corner of Windich Street until at least mid-1930s. Another one, run by Mr Gilpin, was located between the original stone Police station and the 'Esperanza' boarding house and restaurant until 1910. The blacksmith shop run by the Gilpins was reopened by butcher Ben Peek whose family occupied the 'Esperanza'. The Peek's butcher shopfront faced onto Dempster Street, situated near the current Police Station. In the later part of the 1920s, Ben Peek gave up both butchering and the blacksmith business.
Litchard Moir, member of the Moir family of Fanny Cove, was an excellent blacksmith and wheelwright, learning in his youth from his father. William Moir made all the requirements for the homestead and farm including headers for heading wheat, a winnowing machine for cleaning the wheat and harrows for tilling the soil as well as making wagons, drays and carts. In 1910 Litchard Moir opened a blacksmith's shop at the rear of the Pier Hotel for a time. Another Esperance blacksmith of note was Joe Moroney, who took over from Litchard and kept it going during the difficult Great War years.
A purpose-built blacksmith shop was constructed in the Museum Park Village in 1985 with the help of the local enterprise initiatives committee. Later, in the 1980s, the Museum Park Anvil and Horseshoe workshop was opened by blacksmith Wolfgang Schult, who had learnt the art of blacksmiths in a village in Germany in 1943. There was still a substantial need for his trade by the local horse club and farmers. His high-quality original wrought iron items also found a market among locals and visitors alike. The blacksmith shop was the focal point of the Museum Village and attracted much interest. At a safe distance the warmth of the glowing forge could be felt and people stopped to watch the sparks fly when Wolfgang was in action at the anvil.
The tools used by the blacksmiths are still used today, despite the heyday of the blacksmiths having long faded. When Wolfgang Schult retired, the shop in the Museum Park continued as Graham Wheeler took it over for several years. The blacksmiths workshop building was recently removed from the Museum village in 2018. The unique iron seat around the Post Office pine tree forged by Graham Wheeler is a feature of the town square. It links the town to people and bygone eras. I, for one, would like the seat to be returned to its place.