Jimmy Lovett, the Last Farrier in Jamaica Plain
The last farrier’s story is based on personal observation of Lovett’s McBride Street blacksmith shop in the 1940s and 1950s, and an April, 2017, interview with John R. Lovett, the last farrier’s son.
The Spirit of St. Louis
On May 21, 1927, at about 4 pm local time, the Spirit of St. Louis, 27 hours into its historic flight, passed over Ballyferriter Village, County Kerry, Ireland. As the putt-putt-putt of the 223 hp, 9-cylinder, Wright Whirlwind radial engine was heard, the local blacksmith, John Lovett, came out of his shop on the family farm on the Dingle peninsula, raised his smithy’s hammer skyward and proclaimed: “he must be a man of ingenuity.” He then ordered his four blacksmith-in-training sons, James, David, John and Patrick, back to work at the forge.
In 1928, one year after Lindbergh’s historic flight, the oldest of the ten Lovett children, James “Jimmy” Lovett, was working in the blacksmith shop at 10 McBride Street, Jamaica Plain. He would become the last farrier in Jamaica Plain. Jimmy brought with him to Jamaica Plain the scar of a horse’s hoof between his eyes and the lyrical brogue of Western Ireland. And that seaside Lovett farm on the Dingle peninsula became a thriving B&B in modern times.
The Blacksmith Shop
The blacksmith shop at 10 McBride Street was started by Ignatius J. Craffey around 1910. He operated it until about 1925 when John P. Mahoney, a native of Cork, Ireland, bought the shop. Mahoney, who lived at 84 Seaverns Avenue, was the former owner of stables and a smithy at 716 Centre Street. Mahoney ran the McBride Street shop until 1928. There had been a stable attached to the front of the shop, but it had been removed, leaving only the tiny shop on the rear of the 2,420 square foot lot.
John P. Mahoney
A suspicious fire on January 21, 1917, in John Mahoney’s two-story brick stable at the rear of 704 Centre Street killed three horses. One horse belonged to Mahoney; the other two were owned by George K. Jiaris of 85 Rockview Street who leased the property. Jiaris owned a fruit stand at 680a Centre Street.
In March, 1917, a scrawled note was found tacked to the door of Mahoney’s shop. It read: “Dere Mr. John Mahoney, Youd better leave $10,000 on the flor inside the door of this shak tonite or well burn the shak down again. [signed] Gyp the Blood, PS No Potatoes Accepted.” It was thought that this was a prank, as surely, no person in Jamaica Plain would have $10,000 cash.
Since the stable at the front of the structure had been removed, leaving only the little shop, I rarely saw a horse on the premises as I passed it six or seven times a day in the 1940s and ’50s. Four of those daily passages were back and forth to St. Thomas Aquinas schools.
I had more than a passing interest in Jimmy’s shop because in 1948 I took a course called “Forging” at Boston Technical High School, formerly Mechanic Arts High School. Besides burning holes in our pants, we made fancy gate hooks, clothes hooks and farm tools. My mother was impressed.
James ‘Jimmy’ Lovett
Jimmy was the oldest of the ten Lovett children. He was born on December 5, 1905, at Ballineanig, Ballyferriter, County Kerry, Ireland. His parents were John and Margaret (McCarthy) Lovett. They married on February 1, 1905, after Margaret returned from a short stay in America with her brother, Dan. Jimmy attended the local National School and played Gaelic football there. The 1911 Irish Census listed him, at age five, as a “scholar.”
Learning the blacksmith and farrier skills from his father, John Lovett, Jimmy became a life-long blacksmith-farrier in America. The general distinction between blacksmith and farrier was that a blacksmith made and repaired metal tools and ironware using the heat of the forge, while a farrier was a blacksmith who shoed horses. In Ireland, another distinction was that a farrier was considered qualified as a veterinarian to treat many animal ailments.
When Jimmy Lovett arrived from Ireland in 1928, he went to work for John Mahoney at the McBride Street shop. When Mahoney died, Jimmy ran the shop for his widow. Jimmy bought the shop from her and ran it until about 1961. He obtained title to the property in a 1940 deed from Delia A. Craffey, who is believed to have been the daughter of Ignatius J. and Annie M. Craffey, the original owners of the shop at 10 McBride Street. Jimmy’s brother, Patrick, became the blacksmith at the Boston Gas Company, down the street from Jimmy’s shop at their McBride Street facility.
Another brother, John Lovett, became a blacksmith in Enfield, near London. John’s customers included the London Zoo and wealthy horse owners around greater London. John was injured doing rescue work during the World War II bombings of England. When he retired, John raised cattle, grazing them, with the owner’s permission, on an estate where he once shoed horses. The owner of the estate was Princess Diana’s stepmother. The fourth Lovett son, David, stayed home on the family homestead at Ballyferriter, working the forge there.
Jimmy’s 1928 arrival in America was sponsored by his uncle, Dan McCarthy, of Dorchester. Dan worked as the City Blacksmith at the City Yard in Franklin Park. He arranged the job for Jimmy at John Mahoney’s shop. Jimmy would later have Dan’s city job, as described further on. Dan was a frequent visitor to the Lovett residence on Rossmore Road, his presence telegraphed by the odor of the modestly-priced El Producto cigars he smoked. Dan had served in the U.S. Cavalry during the First World War.
Jimmy loved to tell the Lindbergh story in his wide horseshoeing travels. He was very extroverted and enjoyed having “drop-ins” who just wanted to chat at his McBride Street shop. He had many friends and acquaintances in Jamaica Plain, including a McBride Street neighbor with epilepsy. Jimmy had instructed the afflicted neighbor to approach whenever he felt a seizure was imminent. On one such occasion, the neighbor approached Jimmy outside of Steve Slyne’s First National Store at South and Hall streets. He was obviously in distress and Jimmy gently set him down on the sidewalk, and, using the correct procedure, he took the victim’s wallet out and placed it between his teeth to prevent him swallowing his tongue. A passing woman saw this and started beating Jimmy with her pocketbook and yelling, “Thief, robber, call the police!”
Another young McBride Street neighbor, named Dolan, would regularly come in and play his guitar near the forge while Jimmy caught a quick beer across the street at Hester’s pub.
Many of Jimmy’s Jamaica Plain neighbors credited him with the good luck collected in a used Lovett horseshoe hanging, with tips up, over a door.
Jimmy’s farrier work took him to several stables in and around Milton, including the Paddocks, the Maresfield Farm at the Prowse Estate and the Indian Line Farm. He also shoed the rental horses at Wright stables at 104 Williams Street, and the Forest Hills stables on Lotus Street.
Joe Diggins was the stableman at the Paddocks, where, about 1950, we rented completely self-directed and ornery horses who led us through the Blue Hills riding paths, sometimes at a trot, sometimes at a walk, depending on their whim. The Paddocks bought their horses from farms in the south, which might account for their rebellious spirit. The Paddocks was owned by a curmudgeonly old man named John Smith whose father was a blacksmith off Washington Street in Roslindale. Smith was not a forgiving man and often blamed the rider for a horse’s behavior that was actually caused by the stable’s improper bridling of the animal.
Jimmy was the official farrier for the annual Columban Fathers’ Horse Show held on their Seminary grounds on Brush Hill Road in Milton. The Columban Fathers are an Irish Order of missionary priests. This show was a major event for the local horsey set. Elegantly dressed spectators mingled with crowds from several New England states. Riders dressed in tight riding breeches, jackets, tall polished boots and hard riding caps hurried back and forth to the officials’ tent checking on their entry status for the day’s events, while handlers were busy feeding, watering, grooming and saddling their horses to make them ready for competition. The horses had arrived in Milton by the Brady Horse Transportation Company and other haulers.
The show’s founder was Father Owen McGrath, the seminary’s rector. A native of County Kerry, Ireland, Father McGrath was a very knowledgeable horseman himself and he and Jimmy were close friends, having Kerry in common with a love of horses. Jimmy’s connection with Father McGrath was great for his business and the show was a fine opportunity to remind a well-heeled client or two that they may have overlooked their farrier’s bill.
Jimmy shoed the Boston Police horses for over twenty years at old Station 16 in the Back Bay and on Allandale Road in Jamaica Plain. And he did the MDC Police horses at their stables on Hillside Street in Milton until he was 84 years old. He shoed the horses for several local dairies including Hood’s, Griffin’s, Deerfoot Farm’s and George Knapp’s. He also did the fine buggy horses for the Larz Anderson estate. Jimmy’s ready and reliable advice was widely sought by owners and colleagues about the care and health of their horses. And he had the remarkable ability to recognize the offspring of animals he had serviced previously.
Another of Jimmy’s clients was the Animal Rescue League of Boston at their Pine Ridge Farm location in Dedham. Here he performed needed foot care for elderly horses retired from the Boston Police Department. There is a beautiful animal cemetery, open to the public, at that Dedham location. One headstone inscription Jimmy loved was: “To my four-footed friend who was truer to me than many of my two-footed friends.”
The several photos shown in the Lovett Photo Gallery in the Appendix depict the horseshoeing procedure on a fairly typical horse. The properly prepared hoof was leveled with tar, oakum and a thick piece of leather to receive the correct type of new shoe. The shoe would then be attached with the special nails, exiting through the side of the hoof where it would be bent over, or clinched, and the end cut off. The interaction between the shoer and the shod is remarkable when considering the relative sizes of the parties. Constant soft, reassuring talk kept the animal calm and Jimmy was a master at it.
In 1956, Jimmy started working for the City of Boston’s Parks Department at the Franklin Park City Yard, near the Shattuck Hospital. As the City blacksmith he made and sharpened tools, crafted custom gate and door latches, and did specialized iron work for various City of Boston agencies. This was the job formerly held by his uncle, Dan McCarthy. He continued his own farrier work when not on the clock for the City.
The always-energetic Jimmy also worked at other smithy shops including John D. McCormack’s at 32 Spring Street in West Roxbury, Ernest G. Colpitt’s on New England Avenue in Dorchester, and other small shops whenever they needed help. Jimmy could use the forges at these and other shops, after his own McBride Street shop was shut down.
While Jimmy preferred to work alone, a fellow named John Cleary, of Brookline, occasionally helped Jimmy with a skittish horse. Cleary lived with his sister, across from the Brookline Country Club, near the famous Francis Ouimet at 246 Clyde Street. His sister’s husband, Jack Kirrane, was captain of the 1960 Olympic gold medal hockey team. Cleary was indigent and sometimes slept in the McBride Street shop. After the occasional job helping Jimmy, Cleary would declare himself “Jimmy Lovett’s assistant!”
Jimmy and his wife, Helen (McCarthy), who was born in 1912 in Killarney, Ireland, met at the Irish dances in Hibernian Hall on Dudley Street. When first married, they rented apartments at number 37 and later, 43 Wachusett Street, Jamaica Plain. They bought 88 Rossmore Road and lived there from 1948 to 1961. They then lived at 47 Prince Street until moving to 29 Mingo Street in Milton in 1976. They had three children, John, Joan and James.
John, the oldest child, followed his father’s farrier calling as described further on. Joan Lovett, two years younger than John, became a school teacher in Milton where she lives with her husband, Tommy Williams, who grew up on Hall Street. Joan and Tommy have four grown sons and enjoy their retirement summers on Lake Ossipee, New Hampshire.
The late James “Jimmy” Lovett, Jr., was ten years younger than John. He was a teacher at St. Patrick’s school in Roxbury and maintained an active life in music. A former trumpet player in the St. Thomas Aquinas marching band and the Boston College band, Jimmy was also a player and manager for the Marsels, a professional dance band in the Greater Boston area. A tireless performer, Jimmy was known to play for all three bands, at different venues, on the same day! Jimmy Jr. passed away in 1985, a loss still felt deeply by the Lovett family.
In 1982, Jimmy Sr. was presented with a Fifty Year Pin at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Jamaica Plain. He cherished that award because of the many friendships he had there. Jimmy Lovett passed in 1997, at 91 years, after a long, productive and colorful life as the last farrier in Jamaica Plain.
John Richard Lovett
John Lovett, Jimmy’s oldest child, was born on September 23, 1942 in Boston. His parents lived on Wachusett Street at that time. As the child of parents born in Ireland, John enjoys dual citizenship and is thus an Irish citizen.
John is a graduate of St.Thomas Aquinas Grammar School and the High School’s Class of 1960. The late Boston mayor, Thomas Menino, was also in that 1960 class. John fondly remembers Sister Bernadine, his first-grade teacher at St. Thomas, who made a lasting impression on him. Later, Sisters Mareidel and Rosenda did an outstanding job of preparing John for college. Sister Rosenda’s sense of humor was especially treasured in the strict parochial school climate of the times.
John remembers passing two family blacksmiths as a kid on the way to St. Thomas schools from Rossmore Road. His uncle, Patrick, working as a blacksmith for the Boston Gas Company on McBride Street, would wave to John and his sister, Joan, and then, farther up McBride Street, his dad would greet them from the Lovett shop. Later, little brother Jimmy would join the trio of Lovett kids being greeted by their uncle and father along McBride Street. Uncle Patrick passed in 2015 at 92 years.
In his teens, John worked part-time for a couple of Boston caterers, Kiley’s and Linehan’s, alongside his Mom. He also worked in the cafeteria at one of the famous Boston Irish dance halls, Hibernian Hall, at Dudley Street. Uncle Patrick Lovett’s brother-in-law, John Kelly, ran the dances there. John served coffee at the dances and was involved in repairing the damage from a suspicious fire thought to be set by a competing dance hall. Competition for paying customers among the five Irish dance halls at Dudley Street was fierce, to put it mildly. A wonderful history of Boston’s Irish dance halls will be found in the book See You at the Hall by Susan Gedutis.
John remembers another teenage chore. The McBride Street shop had a flat, tar-papered roof over a less-than-robust support system. So, after a heavy snowfall, John had to clear the snow off the roof for the safety of all concerned. John also caddied at the Brookline Country Club and remembers his father’s stories about the horse-racing track there many years earlier. Itinerant bookies sat on portable stools near the Clyde Street fence taking bets. Occasionally, when a bookie lost a big bet, he would be seen, stool in hand, jumping the fence out to Clyde Street.
John graduated from Boston College in 1964 and Boston College Law School in 1967. John vividly remembers a BC and ROTC classmate, Danny Kellett, of 64 McBride Street. Danny was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in May, 1964, and served as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army. Later, he joined a combat unit and was killed on December 8, 1966, on a riverboat on the Mekong River. Danny is memorialized at the corner of South and Child streets in Jamaica Plain and on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.
After law school, John was ordered to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he became a Green Beret paratrooper. Because of his civilian experience as a farrier, John had the unusual military occupation specialty of Agricultural Officer. He was then reassigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as a debt counsellor for young GIs with little or no money management experience, who were being exploited by sharks. John found that work very rewarding.
John earned the Bronze Star and his highly prized Combat Infantryman’s Badge in 1969 for his service as a platoon leader in the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, in Vietnam. John sadly recalls how his very highly-regarded CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert H. Carter of North Carolina, and two of his staff officers were killed by small-arms fire, all within three days of each other, in 1969. John developed a yearbook for the battalion which was dedicated to the fallen Colonel Carter. The yearbook is still in print and available online.
John and his wife, Helen (Merrigan), have lived at 120 Westchester Road, Jamaica Plain, since 1970. Helen was born in Dorchester. They have four children and four grandchildren. John is a long-time member and former president of the Jamaica Hills Association, the neighborhood around Faulkner Hospital. For 15 years John and a few friends have hosted the after-the-Mass coffee hour on Sunday mornings at St. Thomas’ church. The pastor there is also responsible for Our Lady of Lourdes parish and, until it closed, Blessed Sacrament parish. St. Mary of the Angels in Roxbury is now the pastor’s third flock.
Starting in 2012, John led a drive to rebuild the Casey Overpass. He testified at several hearings, appeared on radio talk shows and in a filmed symposium at the JFK Library; but it seemed the decision had already been made and a demolition contract already awarded while the hearings and meetings were being held. Nevertheless, John stays involved with the project.
John worked 24 years for Verizon, retiring in 1994. After entering as a management trainee, he held several management positions of increasing responsibility in Lynn, Lowell, Haverhill and Newburyport. After retiring from Verizon, John worked for five years as a bartender in Haverhill at his son’s pub called J.P. McBride’s. His son named the place for his home town and his grandfather’s workplace. His son went on to rehab and build other bars in South Boston, one of which is still a popular pub there.
John Becomes a Farrier
John drove his first horseshoe nail at the age of four at Griffin’s milk barn at Carolina Avenue and South Street. At about 15 years old, John began helping his dad shoeing horses. John recalls many happy memories working with his father at Suffolk Downs in Revere, the Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton shoeing the polo ponies in the Hamilton-Wenham area, the Weymouth, Marshfield and Brockton Fairs, and various racetracks and stables. John says that he learned much about human nature and psychology working alongside his dad at these widely diverse venues. And while knowing little or nothing about polo, they did see Mark Philips, Princess Margaret’s husband, playing at Myopia.
Among other treasured memories of his father, John remembers their visit to the Killarney steeplechase races where Jimmy loved to talk horses with the Irish racing crowd there. And, after several postponed visits to the Kentucky Derby, Jimmy finally got there in the 1970s and never stopped talking about it. The photo of John and his father was taken in 1986 at the MDC Police stables in Milton.
John described the different shoes each animal required, depending on the activity involved. For example, the aluminum shoes on a racehorse wouldn’t be used on a workhorse, and polo ponies needed a special shoe that allowed abrupt stopping and turning. He remembers an old-style shoe called “Neverslip,” for use on ice and snow. Rubber shoes were used on Police horses working on city streets. They are steel, encased in a heavy coating of hard rubber, to provide traction and prevent the horse from slipping and sliding on paved surfaces. In addition, a regular shoe could be modified by the farrier for different working and weather conditions, and the condition of the horses’ hooves.
While John’s father, Jimmy, carried the scars of a kick on his forehead, John carries a large scar on his calf from a frightened horse at the Paddocks stables. The horse pulled away while John was trying to remove an old nail. The sharp edge of the nail sliced across his leg making a deep gash.
When asked if shoeing hurts the horse, John said that as long as it was done properly, there was no pain, but a slight error might draw blood and hurt the horse. And the horse would certainly let the farrier know! The hoof, he said, is like fingernail material (keratin) and thus free of pain- carrying nerves. We also asked how it was that the horse seemed willing to let the farrier lift his hoof to be reshod. John said that constantly talking softly and reassuringly to the animal and exhibiting no fear, which the horse could sense, calmed the animal. In cases involving an uncooperative horse, a rope noose would be placed around the horse’s neck and a leather cuff attached to the hoof at the other end so that the hoof could be “hoisted” with the rope and held in the proper position for re-shoeing. The leather cuffs were made by Edward McCarthy, harnessmaker, at 617 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain.
John remembers several cases where a horse was about to be put down due to foot problems and his dad’s expert skills were able to save the animal for very grateful owners. In one case, however, an over-anesthetized horse at a farm in Holliston fell over during the shoeing process. The animal developed chills so Jimmy told the owner to keep him warm in a bed of fresh hay. When Jimmy returned a couple of months later, he learned the horse had died, but the thrifty owner proudly showed Jimmy the salvaged shoes.
A painful hoof disease called “thrush” was the result of standing in uncleaned stalls or failure to properly clean the hooves during re-shoeing. It is essentially a rotting at the center of the foot. When a severe case was discovered, causing pain and lameness, Jimmy used a very old and successful remedy of chemically burning the affected parts for about 30 seconds. It involved iodine crystals and liquid ether, packed with oakum into the hoof. Most horses took it in stride, but occasionally one would get frightened at the sizzling and smoke generated by the chemical reaction and Jimmy would have to struggle to keep the hoof upright to allow completion of the treatment. John remembers his dad replenishing the chemicals at C.B. Rogers’ drugstore on Centre Street. He also bought “horse liniment,” better known as Sloan’s Liniment, at Rogers, for his horses’ sore legs as well as his own and his children’s sore muscles.
Andrew Sloan, also an Irish immigrant, formulated the liniment for use on U.S. Cavalry horses in the 1880s. It was discovered that the stuff also relieved sore human muscles and thus was born an old and trusted curative, still available today, at almost $20 bucks for a 4-oz. bottle!
Around 1966, John, with his father’s blessing, decided to strike out on his own and he put a farrier’s ad in the Globe. The response was overwhelming with respondents on the Cape, the Islands, and southern Massachusetts from all kinds of stables including flat and trotting race horses. He took on some of the work and quickly learned that the itinerant group of owners, who followed the thoroughbred racing circuit around the country, should pay for their $15 ($115 in 2017) horseshoeing service up-front. Thus, John kept his losses to a minimum. And, while mostly a colorful and fun-loving group of characters, one owner warned John about race results being influenced by a farrier’s intentional laming of a horse. John enjoyed farrier’s work, but the appeal of a steady job, with benefits, overcame the uncertainties of self-employment that he had seen in his own family, so in 1970 he took the job with Verizon.
John has several artifacts from his blacksmithing days with his father. He has their identical toolboxes, a foot-operated vise, his leather apron, and an anvil whose ring is still bell-like when struck with a hammer. While anvils can be steel or cast iron, the steel maintains its “bounce” and is easier to work on. Steel will not chip like an iron anvil which is generally deemed inferior. An iron anvil answers with a dull “thud” when struck with a hammer.
The Blacksmith’s Neighborhood
As this is written, construction of high-rise condos on the former site of Jimmy Lovett’s blacksmith shop and the Washington Wet Wash, formerly the Coffee Tree Inn, at 16 McBride Street, has begun. The sites had been a parking lot for the James’s Gate Pub, across the street at 5 McBride Street, for several years. A complete history of The Coffee Tree Inn and Washington Wet Wash will be found on this website.
The site of the former James’s Gate Pub will also host condos. James’s Gate was named after the famous 1759 Dublin brewer of Guinness Stout, but lacked the “Saint” as used in Ireland: i.e. St. James’s Gate. The St. Thomas Aquinas pastor, Father Thomas, asked owner Paul Byrnes to drop the “Saint” when naming his new pub on McBride Street. James’s Gate was built on the site of Hester’s Tavern at 5 McBride Street.
Hester’s was acquired in 1947 by Bernard T. “Bonnie” Hester. A former bricklayer from Dalrymple Street, he and his wife, Josephine, later moved to 88 Manthorne Road in West Roxbury. The previous owner of 5 McBride, Harold H. Balmforth, bought the place in 1934 when the 21st Amendment trumped the 18th and Prohibition became history. It was called the Balmforth Lunch for 13 years.
“Bonnie” Hester ran Hester’s until 1959 when it became McBride Lunch. Around 1967 it was called Joe Cunniff’s Bar. Cunniff was a long-time patron and a former bartender. Thereafter it was Danny Harold’s, The Dory Lounge, MacDonald’s and McBride Lunch again until James’s Gate owner, Paul Byrne, purchased and renovated the property in 1997.
Hester’s, irreverently known as the “chapel,” smelled terrible from a mixture of stale beer and the failure of the sawdust covering the floor to absorb everything spilled on it. Its “dimeys,” i.e. ten-cent glasses of beer, were very popular for budget-minded patrons even if served in somewhat cloudy glasses. On the bright side, Hester’s had the first-in-the-neighborhood television. A tiny Dumont black-and-white sat on a shelf at the far end of the bar. From the sidewalk outside, we could watch the Friday Night Fights, narrated by Don Dunphy and sponsored by Gillette Thin and Blue blades, neither of which we needed yet.
Hester’s bookie appeared at 5 pm sharp to begin taking bets on the daily lottery number. He would then move on to other neighborhood bars and stores collecting 10-cent bets that paid 600 to one, or $60 for a winning pick of three consecutive numbers. The number would be found in the daily betting handle at one of the Boston-area racetracks during the season or selected other tracks in off-season. The handle would be published in the “Payoff” edition of the Boston American, a popular tabloid published from 1904 to 1961. The night’s proceeds would be phoned in to “the office” and winners paid promptly the same evening.
The next day, the bookie would meet a big black Caddy at the green bubbler (water fountain) across from St. Thomas Aquinas Church to hand in a bag of cash and slips through the lowered tinted window. Our bookie, Tom B., was a very dapper dresser and would be wearing a beautiful gray fedora hat and, in season, a fine, navy blue overcoat for these transactions. One could never see who owned the outstretched hand taking the bag.
Wilson’s Market on the west side of Lovett’s shop, at 114a South Street, was a scene out of a depression-era movie. Mr. Wilson wore a soiled straw hat and a blood-stained apron over an unwashed butcher’s coat. He would hack away at a slab of graying meat with an adhesive bandage on nearly every finger. Despite his grubby appearance, he loved to show off his knife-honing skills before every meat order was cut, rhythmically sliding the alternate sides of the blade against the honing steel with great flourish.
It was rumored that Wilson was selling horsemeat during the War, but no one complained because he always took the ration coupons and tokens, which sort of legitimized the stuff. His ancient Toledo Scale registered 7 ounces, while at rest. One assumed Mr. Wilson made a mental adjustment for that when weighing out one’s order.
Wilson had about 18 antique cans of vegetables on the shelves and a basket of bone-dry onions and potatoes on the floor. No one knew much about Mr. Wilson, but he seemed to be a kind man and he was never seen without a Camel hanging from his lips. I can still feel the tension, wondering whether that cigarette’s long ash would fall onto my mother’s meat.
During Prohibition, a men’s club, called the Hampstead Club, was located above Wilson’s Market. They had a pool table and offered refreshments to members and guests up there. Farther down the street at 110 McBride Street, the site of Woodrow Barbour’s Variety store was said to have been a speakeasy during the dry years, but no one is around now to confirm that. Woody’s was a popular coffee shop for commuting Boston Gas Company employees during the 1940s and ’50s.
In 1950, another McBride Street “movie” played out. The star was an attractive redhead who rented the first floor of a two-family house, a few doors from us. The landlord began receiving reports from neighbors that the lady had a steady stream of male callers all day long. One of the callers accidently rang the wrong bell and asked the landlord, living on the second floor, “is Miss - - - open today?”
Our own landlord at 76 McBride Street, Tom McKinnon, was a self-taught amateur painter. Regrettably, I turned down his offer of a painting in 1949. He did nice sailing ships and several versions of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I never learned the inspiration for the several pictures of Daniel with the lions, but it must have meant something to old Tom.
Tom McKinnon was a deck-hand on wooden ships during the early 1900s, in the twilight of the days of sail. He went to sea at age 16 from his native Scotland and got to see many of the world’s great seaport cities. No one dared call Tom “Scotty.” He said that was a dog’s name and anyone who did was threatened with a thrashing. It was rumored that old Tom had a violent past. The well-known Hansen family lived at 63 McBride Street. Maureen Hansen’s Irish Dancing School became a Greater Boston icon in that field. Another sister, Jana Louise Hansen, went on to world-wide fame as a singer, starting out in the Irish dance halls at Dudley Street. She sang at several Boston night spots including the old Beachcomber at Wollaston Beach and at major east and west coast venues as well.
Then there was Joe “Bags” Yerkes, the owner of the Washington Wet Wash, next door to Jimmy’s shop. (Washed laundry was delivered to your home in a repainted hearse the morning after it was washed. It arrived, still wet, in bags.) One day, Joe was burning trash behind his building when the roaring fire got out of control, burning the overhead wires. Sensing an embarrassing, and possibly expensive, problem, Joe scooted across the street to hide in Hester’s tavern. When the Police and Fire units arrived, Joe returned to his property exclaiming loudly, with feigned shock and surprise, “what have those kids been up to now!” He didn’t fool the cops.
Blacksmiths in Jamaica Plain
The history of blacksmithing is too long and diverse for this story. However, a few dates and people are worth remembering. The Iron Age came to England about 450 BC, requiring a blacksmith in every village to convert the iron to tools and weapons. By the 1200s the blacksmithing industry was firmly established, and in 1356, The Worshipful Order of Farriers was established in London. In 1842, John Deere, a blacksmith, originally from Rutland, Vermont, built the first steel plow, which revolutionized agriculture. The rest is, as they say, history.
In 1901 there were 219 blacksmiths in Boston. Eight were in Jamaica Plain: C. Chase at 767 Centre Street, R. Clark at 10 Green Street, P. Floyd at 174 Green Street, J. Kelley at 216 Centre Street, J. McDonald at 126 South Street, P. Murnaghan at Walk Hill and Washington Streets, M. Corcoran at 176 Green Street and J. Dolan at Porter Street. In that same year there were 195 stables and 10 horse dealers in Boston.
In 1912 there were 98 blacksmiths in Boston, four of them in Jamaica Plain, and by 1930 there were 61 in Boston, two of them in Jamaica Plain. They were Charles Cowan at 124 Boylston Street and James Lovett at 10 McBride Street. By 1950 there were 16 in Boston and only one in Jamaica Plain: James Lovett.
In 2017 there are 36 blacksmiths in Massachusetts with six in Greater Boston. And there is a blacksmithing school, Prospect Hill Forge, in Waltham, actively training hobbyists and aspiring blacksmiths. The MBTA maintains a large blacksmith shop at their Everett facility where they make special parts for their running equipment. The Boston Parks Rangers Mounted Unit currently has eight horses stabled at Franklin Park. A mobile farrier services those horses.
The Blacksmith in Art, Literature and Music
The proverb, “For Want of a Nail,” has for several centuries reminded us that timely preventive action can save a horse, a man and a kingdom:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow raised the blacksmith to new heights in 1842 with “The Village Blacksmith,” who labored long hours under a “spreading chestnut tree.”
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.”
The blacksmith has often been the subject of paintings and prints. In this painting titled “Pat Lyon at the Forge,” painted by 29-year old artist, John Neagle, in 1826, Pat Lyon, a wealthy Philadelphia businessman chose to be painted as a blacksmith, his first vocation.
Eugene Delacroix, the noted French artist of the 19th century, made several prints and paintings of the blacksmith at work. Another print, dating to about 1606, by an unknown artist, shows a blacksmith using the same basic tools.
The smithy has been remembered in medieval, symphonic, folk and popular music for hundreds of years. The very popular tune in our 1950s era was the Blacksmith Blues by Jack Holmes, © 1951:
Down in old Kentucky
Where horseshoes are lucky
There’s a village smithy
Standin’ under the chestnut tree
Hear the hammer knockin’
See the anvil rockin’
He sings the boogie blues
While he’s hammerin’ on the shoes
John Lovett recalls the chorus of an old Irish folk song, “The Blacksmith;” recorded in 1976 by the Irish duo of Mick Foster and Tony Allen:
Sure I dream as the hammer strikes the anvil
And I dream as the sparks light on the floor
Of my blue-eyed turtle dove, she’s the only girl I love
As she stood outside that good old Smithy door.
The song always triggers an emotional memory of his father working at the anvil, with the glow of the forge’s fire on his face, while the shooting sparks fall on the worn, tin-covered, wood floor of the McBride Street shop. It’s a beautiful portrait of a loving father’s legacy.
In 1994, John’s son, David, presented him with this wonderfully crafted six-inch smithy at work. The piece was made in England and John treasures it as a memento of the four generations of blacksmiths in the Lovett family, starting with John’s great-grandfather, David Lovett (1843-1926), his grandfather, John (1876-1932), followed by his father, Jimmy (1905-1997) and himself.
As a new blacksmith’s neighborhood emerges on McBride Street in 2017, we hope that the stories about the last farrier in Jamaica Plain, in his tiny shop at 10 McBride Street, and some of the characters in his old neighborhood, will enrich the experience of the new residents, while reminding them how swiftly the years pass.
Special thanks to Kathy Griffin for editorial assistance.
By Peter O’Brien, © 2017 All Rights Reserved
Pat Lyon at the Forge, photo, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
See You at the Hall, Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance, by Susan Gedutis, Northeastern University Press, © 2004
For Want of a Nail, proverb
The Village Blacksmith, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1842
The Blacksmith Blues, © Jack Holmes, 1951 (Youtube)
The Blacksmith, Foster and Allen, 1976 (Youtube)
A Blacksmith, Eugene Delacroix, 1833
A Blacksmith, 1606, unknown artist