A close-up of a person hammering a heated metal piece on an anvil, with a forge fire glowing in the background. The hammer is striking the metal, shaping it on the anvil.

WAPA IT supervisor forges own path through the fires of blacksmithing

There’s a saying that good steel bends but never breaks. It’s forged in the fires of a 2,000-degree smelt, shaped, and molded to become something new. As the thrust of a hammer strikes the glowing iron, the sparks fly, and the metal takes shape ever so slightly, morphing into its next existence. 

For Mark Phelps, an information technology supervisor for WAPA’s Sierra Nevada region, blacksmithing is more than a strenuous work out of crafting steel instruments. It’s the therapeutic nature of striking steel as awe-inspired families look on that motivates Phelps to continue his volunteerism at California’s Empire Mine State Park, wedged in the center of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. 

“It’s a blast!” Phelps exclaimed. “I wouldn’t have done it for five years if I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. The reason you do it is because you love it. There’s nothing like being (at the park) and having some family come in, and you explain to them history. The first time you roar up the fire, blow air into it, and the flames shoot up as you stick a piece of metal in that glows bright yellow. The kids just go bugged eye. They are absolutely fascinated by that.” 

Since 2008, Phelps has supported WAPA’s mission to deliver clean and reliable hydropower by ensuring the organization’s IT systems remain optimized. Due to WAPA’s complex business practices and IT systems, Phelps and his team both adopt off-the-shelf software to manage and support hydropower sales and information sharing and, in some cases, will write unique software and coding specific to dams. 

“My team writes software that handles energy distribution for many regions,” Phelps said. “Some of our regions don’t use custom systems, and some do, so it varies. We also write software for programs like SHARK, which stores energy contracts.” 

Phelps said that with WAPA having more than 10,000 energy contracts on record, it is important to review and access them at a moment’s notice. 

His team helps ensure that’s possible. 

Descent into docent 

While Phelps excels at maintaining WAPA’s IT systems, it’s what he does outside of work that keeps him grounded. His fascination with blacksmithing didn’t come overnight. In 2003, while searching out a new hobby, he discovered woodworking as his next love. While most would associate that with table saws and sanders, Phelps was drawn to traditional woodworking where hand tools gave way to the eloquence of hand-crafted designs. 

“I have always been fascinated with the way people used to do things. For instance, how did they make things in the old days when they didn’t have factories and how they got things done? I’ve always been fascinated by that.” 

As time went by, Phelps began to discover blacksmithing. The thought of something as simple as nails that can be purchased at a local hardware store just wasn’t as commonplace 100 years or more ago. 

“In the old days, nails were so valuable we have records of fathers willing a bag of nails to their son,” Phelps said. “We don’t really understand that now, but in those days, nails were so valuable it was worth putting in your will.” 

While cultivating his ongoing fascination with yesteryear, Phelps faced a challenge from the financial barrier that exist to enter the blacksmithing trade. But as luck would have it, an opportunity would soon present itself. 

“Forges are very expensive,” Phelps pointed out. “And then, when looking at the price of an anvil, they can go from $3,000 to $5,000. That’s when a lady in my church congregation revealed to me that her husband had passed away, and she was moving to a smaller place in another state. As I was helping her with packing and moving, I noticed she had this blacksmith anvil sitting in her front yard as yard art. I looked at that, thinking, ‘You have a $1,000 anvil sitting in your yard gathering rust’. I asked if it was possible to buy it, knowing I didn’t have a lot of money, but could I pay something for it. She didn’t want to take it with her where she was going, so she said yes and sold it to me for $100. And that got me started.” 

With anvil now in hand, Phelps focused on the most basic of tasks – how does one blacksmith? 

“When I did woodworking, I joined a woodworkers club, met other people, and had a social element to my hobby,” he recalled. “I started to look around to see if there were any blacksmithing clubs. Here in California, the primary blacksmith club is the California Blacksmith Association. I looked them up online and found a local chapter that operates a forge at the Empire Mine State Park.” 

His connection to the CBA turned into eight, consecutive weeks of instruction, during which he learned to light a fire, and how to properly hit the metal to shape it as well as the basic tools a blacksmith uses. With the eight-week course behind him, Phelps was given the opportunity to become a docent, the term used for blacksmithing students until they meet the final qualifications – a status he has maintained for five years. 

With his work at the Empire Mine State Park, Phelps was now volunteering as a living history docent and, in return, continued to receive the necessary training and access to the park’s forge to continue his hobby. 

“As a docent, you meet the customers who come to tour the park, teach them the history of the craft, and give tours. Most people visit the park to learn about gold mining from California’s gold rush days. During that time of gold mining, miners needed a lot of tools. Blacksmiths existed to ensure they had them.” 

Teaching the next generation 

While starting as a hobby of interest, blacksmithing has now grown into an opportunity for Phelps to bring to life a side of California history to many families and kids that otherwise they wouldn’t notice. 

“In blacksmithing, there’s a lot of show to it,” Phelps said. “You pull out a piece of glowing, hot metal from a big fire, stick it on an anvil, and start swinging Thor’s hammer at it. It really catches their attention. And while you have their attention, you can explain how you make things out of metal and how we got to the world we are today.” 

And just as fascinated by the living history, Phelps said the adults are just as starstruck as the kids. 

“It’s mostly fun for the kids, but honestly, there’s just as much “kid” in every adult. They are as thrilled as the kids are. They get fascinated when I start telling them how blacksmiths affect our language. There are a lot of things we say today that are blacksmith-based, and we don’t realize it. Some are more obvious than others, such as the phrase “strike while the iron it hot.” We use that phrase to mean hurry up, seize the day, or take a chance while you still have it. But in the old days, that meant you needed to hit the metal while it was hot, because if the iron was hot, it meat it was soft and malleable, so that you could change its shape. If the iron is cold, you could break the handle or even your arm.” 

‘You can’t touch bits’ 

Making parallels between his “day job” and his time as a blacksmithing docent, Phelps found his hobby balanced his area of expertise at WAPA. 

“What I do for WAPA is all virtual,” Phelps said. “Working with computers, if you stop and think about it, you’re just moving bits on a hard disk. You can’t touch that. You can’t feel that. And it’s very temporary. The things we create are things you can’t touch or feel and don’t last a long time, so it’s very therapeutic for me on the weekend to go and do something I can touch, I can feel, and that will last. It’s so different from what I do at WAPA, and it invigorates me, even though it’s not physically relaxing. If I make things as a blacksmith, they will outlast me.” 

Visitors to Empire Mine State Historic Park can find Mark Phelps hammering away at his next project most Saturdays. The blacksmith shop is open for business each Saturday, November through April, at 2 p.m., and during the months of October through May, at 2:30 p.m. The park is located four miles south of California’s Nevada City and is about a 20-minute drive west of I-80’s Exit 135. 

A person wearing a hat is tending to a fire in a forge with tongs, heating a piece of metal. The background shows a workshop environment with equipment and tools.
A person is hammering a heated metal piece on an anvil, with the forge fire glowing in the background. The workshop setting includes tools and equipment.
A person forging metal on an anvil, holding a hammer and striking a heated metal piece, producing sparks. The background is a workshop setting.
A person wearing a hat is working at an anvil with a hammer resting on it, while a forge fire burns in the background. The scene is set in a workshop environment.
A close-up of a person forging metal on an anvil, showing a hammer striking a heated metal rod held by tongs.
A person wearing a hat and name tag is forging metal on an anvil, holding a hammer and tongs with a heated metal piece.

Mark Phelps, a WAPA IT supervisor and volunteer at the Empire Mine State Park in Grass Valley, California, demonstrates the art of blacksmithing as a living history interpreter. In these photos, he demonstrates traditional forging techniques, educating visitors on the essential role blacksmiths played in creating metal tools and implements before the modern era.

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