By Laurent d’Entremont
At the early morning coffee shop, the other day, I was yarning with a young man named Ronnie, a man 25 years my junior, who asked this question: “How long did it take my grandfather Robbie to shoe oxen? Fifteen minutes?”
A very good question and he had asked it to the right person to boot. I knew his grandfather Robbie well and still have great memories of him “shoeing” oxen in the 1950s.
Robbie was one of my grandfather’s pals, and his little blacksmith shop, however humble a building it might have been, was no more than a stone’s throw from my house. The small building had been a woodcutter’s shanty on Great Pubnico lake road and, after the second World War, it was hauled to Robbie’s property. There, he set up a small hand-cranked, fan-driven forge where he made ox shoes and other things that blacksmiths did in those days.
He also installed an ox-shoeing sling. Unlike horses that can stand on three legs, an ox needs to be hoisted up on a heavy canvas sling for the smith to tack on some shoes. Because an ox has cloven hooves, a pair of shoes is needed for each hoof, or eight per animal. Unless the shoe nails hits any quick, the ox will find this painless.
The blacksmith shop had two doors, one for the ox, directly in line with the shoeing apparatus, where the animal would walk in as if it was just a normal stall. The side door was for the people, especially if you had to leave in a hurry, like when the village bull was having his “nails” done. The means of lifting the ox is accomplished by strong men turning a round wooden log-type thing, with the ox sling attached to it, until the animal no longer supported itself. Then, all four legs are tied to a shoeing stock for the farrier to do his work…not as painful as it seems.
Once the ox was secured, the smith would trim the hooves with a double-handled draw knife and clean them out with a wire brush. Then, he would file them flat with a special file for that purpose. The ox usually showed no discomfort and seldom moved as the metal shoes were nailed on, one at a time, until all eight were securely in place. The “shoe nails” were very pointed and sharp and what protruded on the side of the hoof was cut off and filed smooth, lots of filing was done so the ox would not scratch itself.
It usually took about an hour to do the job when all went well and the ox was not too ornery…oxen were usually tame and easy to manage. Horses were more nervous than oxen, perhaps the reason why the Acadian farmers preferred ox teams over horses to do their work.
Robbie, our smitty, did other things besides shoeing oxen; he also fixed wagon wheels, at least the metal parts. I have a long pry bar that Robbie made for me 40 years ago. Farm machinery often needed fixing and Robbie would reproduce crude-looking replacement parts that did the job. Fishermen often had hooks, gaffs, eyebolts and such that were made at the blacksmith shop.
One summer day that I remember well was when the village bull needed his “toe nails” done, a job few people would have volunteered to do. The old “Toro” did not wear shoes as oxen did, but his hooves had grown utterly out of shape and they could only be trimmed by securing him in the shoeing sling. Needless to say, this was easier said than done. Leonard d’Eon, who took care of the village bull, arrived with “Ol Jonathan” and the “service beast” had no intention of cooperating.
My friend Clifford and I were inside the blacksmith shop as Leonard was pulling on the nose ring to get the bull inside the building; other farmers were pushing to get him inside. All of a sudden, the bull changed his mind and bolted inside the building, this was when Clifford and I realized the importance of the side door, and we left no dust under our shoes in leaving the building. The poor bull never even saw us; his fighting spirit was gone as they lifted him on the sling and trimmed his nails.
This was in the mid-1950s and I have many, many memories of those days and of Robbie shoeing oxen. Oh! And to answer his grandson Ronnie’s question…No, he could not do it in 15 minutes, it always took a lot longer.