Blacksmith's way of life during a bygone era
Thomas Jefferson Mowen retired from blacksmithing in 1976, sold the tools of his trade and moved with his wife from Santa Fe, in Monroe County, to Hannibal, Mo., in order to be close to family. His grandson, Nick Long, said that Tom Mowen named all of his dogs (including those pictured) “Buster.” Roger Steinman, another grandson, said this truck in this picture was a 1958 Chevy, six cylinder with a four-speed transmission, two wheel drive. “Probably not the same brand of tire on any two wheels. I doubt if he drove over 45 miles an hour anywhere,” Steinman said. Photo contributed by Courtney Courter, granddaughter of Vienna Mowen and great-granddaughter of Thomas and Leta Mowen.
Tom and Leta Mowen:
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
During the fall harvest season of 1976, in Monroe County, Missouri's South Fork Township, 81-year-old Tom Mowen’s blacksmith tools went on the auction block.
Santa Fe was (and remains) an unincorporated area of rural South Fork Township in Monroe County, 18 miles north of Mexico, Mo., 18 miles east of Paris, and 11 miles west of Perry.
Mowen, a slight of a man (standing at 5-foot-8 at his prime and weighing just 135 pounds) was the only blacksmith in town. His plan was to move to Hannibal, Mo., along with his wife, Leta, in order to be nearer to close family.
Their home stood a half block to the south of the town’s small post office, and curiosity seekers and serious buyers alike converged upon the property on that crisp Saturday morning in late October in order to disseminate the collection accumulated during a lifetime. Possessions included two night stands, a walnut dresser, Carnival glass, a Walnut wardrobe, a wood stove and so much more.
Also for sale was the couple’s five-room house, surrounded by five wooded acres including some frontage on State Highway D. The house lacked indoor plumbing or electricity, was warmed in winter by a single kerosene heater and cooking was accomplished on a wood stove with a warming tray in the kitchen. At one time, Roger Steinman, a grandson, remembers, a pet snake slept in the warming drawer, welcomed into the house in order to keep mice at bay.
Their beds were filled with down. “You’d get in there and sink right in,” Steinman said. “It got chilly at night,” he said, because the heater just warmed one room. “They loved goldfish. One morning the water (in the goldfish tank) was frozen.”
Historically significant at the sale was the offering of Mowen’s blacksmith equipment and associated tools: An anvil and forge; 5 electric motors; a drill press, grind stone, table saw, tool grinder, trip hammer, assorted tongs and hammers, and hand tools.
The pending sale drew the attention of the local press during the weeks leading up to the sale, specifically the Mexico Ledger, which reminisced about the loss of the town’s only blacksmith.
“For the first time in most people’s memory, Santa Fe is without a blacksmith shop,” the newspaper reported. The Mowens had purchased the business itself from Willie Moore, a long-time bachelor farmer who died in 1949. Mowen’s shop, consisting of hand-sawed lumber and a tin roof, was located on County Route 647, one block north of Route D.
John Yancey, an up-and-coming young auctioneer from Hannibal, and his partner, Paul Parrish, called the auction that October morning in 1976.
The old blacksmith shop at Santa Fe consisted of wood walls that had never been painted, and a tin roof. It had a dirt floor, remembers Roger Steinman, 73, grandson of Tom Mowen. “I started going with him to the shop when I was 5 or 6; I spent summers (at Santa Fe) with my grandparents,” he said. “The inside of the shop was a little crusty. He had the forge there and it burned soft coal, and everything in the shop had a patina on it.
“At first, everything was set up with a pulley system. An old model T was up on blocks and he fired that thing up and used the wheel to turn the belt that ran up to the main shaft. He used an ax handle to flip the belt on and flip the belt off.
“Later on he got an electric loader to replace the old Model T. Maybe I was in my teens, and I helped him install it. He got a trip hammer, and instead of pounding the metal on the anvil, he would weld it in the forge. He’d put it in there, sprinkling something on it, and it would weld.
“I would pump the forge; it had a crank on it. Later on he got an electric motor to do that. A big electric motor powered the rest of the shop.
“You had kerosene lanterns, an old out house out back, and there was a well in the shop itself. A neighbor down the road used to make moonshine; I was there one day with my granddad when the sheriff drove up to get a bottle.
Granddad used to take moonshine in a gallon jug and lower it into the well to keep it cool, and a six pack was in the well as well. I never did see my granddad drunk but he certainly liked moonshine and beer, and he rolled his own cigarettes.
“He used to smoke Prince Albert. Behind the blacksmith shop there were several hundred red tins; you just chucked it out back when you were done with it. No such thing as recycling.
“Aside from being a blacksmith, he made ax handles and sawed lumber. He had a big saw in there, made fence posts,” Steinman said.
“Once a year they butchered hogs, over a weekend. It was a big operation. He set up this hog butchering complex every year, and all the neighbors would bring hogs over and butcher them over a couple of days. They would hang the hogs; and there was a big cauldron to dip them in, like an assembly line.
“He owned a half acre around his shop. It was big, big garden.”
In August 1967, Tom Mowen devised a system of deterring coons from helping themselves to his sweet corn crop.
The Mexico Ledger reported: “Tom Mowen had the neighbors guessing recently, with his own rig to chase away the coons from his sweet corn patch near the blacksmith shop. One neighbor called him to ask if he left a motor running at the shop, and another heard the noise and went to investigate. He had rigged up an old electric fan and set it out in the corn patch on an old tub, so with all the vibrating and the motor it would make plenty of noise.”
The plan worked.
“He has not been bothered with the coons getting his corn,” the Ledger noted.
“He would take my uncle (his youngest son) and me to one of the forks of Salt River to go hand fishing,” Steinman said. “I was always the guy who carried the gunny sack to put the fish in. They would catch big catfish down there. It was hilarious.
“Granddad played the fiddle; I think he played at Rensselaer in the 20s or 30s, a little night club at Sulphur Springs. He probably played at dances around the area, at Perry and Mexico. He’d also sit on the front porch and play a little.”
“He was an excellent, a kind man,” Steinman remembers. “He never shouted. As kids we were pretty rowdy. He was always patient. He was rail thin, but he was a giant in my eyes.”
"Grandmother was a short, round, jovial person," Steinman said. "She cooked great food. She was a teetotaler, and she would get aggravated when grandad drank. But she seldom wandered over the shop ..."
When the grandkids got a cough, she had a remedy. "She'd put sugar in a spoon, and add a few drops of coal oil from the lamp. She'd give you that, I don’t know if it helped or not, but you never coughed again around her.
"She also would make you a poultice, a little muslin bag, with herbs and other stuff, smells horrendous. Tied with a string around your neck. You got cured pretty quick. You sure didn’t come back for seconds," Steinman said.
"My grandma went to church, I think there was only one in town, I think a Christian church in Santa Fe. "They were very common people; very honest."
Thomas Jefferson Mowen of Stoutsville and Leta Van Horn of Paris, both in Monroe County, were married in December 1917. By 1940, they were living in Santa Fe.
They were parents to eight children who lived to adulthood, two of whom were lost to tragic accidents.
Ruth Mowen Hinkle, 17, died in August 1953 when a car in which she was a passenger went out of control on wet pavement four miles north of Hannibal. In addition to her parents, she was survived by her husband, Billy Hinkle, and a young son.
In June 1972, Alvin Eugene Mowen, 44, died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident along Route D. He was survived by his wife, Goldie, and six children.
The Mowens’ other children were Howard Mowen, Earl T. Mowen, Virginia Mowen Steinman, Mary Mowen Long, Bobby Gene Mowen, and Vienna Mae Mowen Gregory.
Tom Mowen, the family patriarch, died in 1979, and his wife, Leta, died in 1989. They are buried at Antioch Cemetery, Ralls County, Mo.
Note: Thank you to Nick Long, Roger Steinman and Kay Myers for sharing their memories for this story, and to Courtney Courter, granddaughter of Vienna Mowen, for sharing this iconic photo of Thomas Jefferson Mowen.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Montgomery.email@example.com Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com
Auction advertisement from the Mexico Ledger Oct. 7, 1976, newspapers.com
The essay, above, was printed in the Mexico Weekly Ledger on April 29, 1880. It aptly illustrates the historical significance of the blacksmith.
Thomas Jefferson Mowen, estimated age, 25. Photo contributed by Nick Long, Mowen's grandson.