Story by Janice Crowl
Photo by Olivier Koning
“There’s a cadence,” says Ethan Froney. “People hear me first, and when they walk by, they see me and stop. They’re awestruck.”
In Froney’s smithy at historic Anna Ranch Heritage Center in Waimea, the propane-fired forge roars and glows red hot. Hammer and anvil ring rhythmically as Froney shapes dinner triangles, tansu-type drawer pulls, leaf-embellished coat hooks, objets d’art. Now and then he pounds out souvenir cow figurines and mini-horseshoe keychains. Anna Ranch was once the estate of Anna Leialoha Perry-Fiske who made her mark in history as a cowboy (she refused to be called a cowgirl), a renowned pa‘u (skirt) rider, prize-winning jockey, butcher and philanthropist. Today Anna Ranch, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, is a museum dedicated to preserving Hawai‘i’s paniolo (cowboy) traditions.
Froney is part of a small community of local craftsmen bringing those vanishing cowboy traditions to modern visitors at the ranch. “A hundred years ago the blacksmith made everything,” he says, bending over his forge. “Now everything is mass-produced, and farriers use pre-formed horseshoes.” Blacksmithing was once a family business passed from father to son, but this modern smith learned the trade at a community college in Seattle. Froney moved to Hawai‘i three years ago and was doing sheet metal work when the ranch invited him to set up shop—a lucky break for someone practicing an obsolete craft. Smithies today are a rare sight; Froney knows of only two others in Hawai‘i.
In true blacksmith tradition Froney forges even some of his tools, and also in true blacksmith tradition, he burns himself every day—just part of the job, he admits. For those who may be interested in similar trials by fire, Froney plans to offer weekend workshops at the ranch, teaching people to make useful everyday items like hooks and hardware. While the craft may seem a quaint archaism, Froney insists that it’s still useful.
“Blacksmithing is on the verge of disappearing because it’s antiquated,” he says, “but here in the middle of the ocean it’s sometimes easier to make what you need.”