Professor channels passion for history through blacksmithing

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History is more than Thomas Henthorn’s career. It’s his passion.

When he’s not working as a professor of history at UM-Flint, he loves exploring the history of his community and visiting historic sites. Some of his favorite family vacations have included trips to Greenfield Village, Mount Vernon and Fort Michilimackinac.

While visiting these sites, he noticed they all included blacksmiths giving live demonstrations. Henthorn was fascinated by the historic craft and tools used to turn lumps of metal into functional items.

Nine years ago, he decided to give blacksmithing a try.

A photo of a man in a suit coat
Thomas Henthorn, professor of history at UM-Flint, was introduced to blacksmithing while exploring historic sites. He now considers it a hobby and began teaching classes on blacksmithing in Flint. (Photos courtesy of Thomas Henthorn)

“I have a lot of hobbies and it just seemed like a hobby that I needed to try,” Henthorn said. “I have always found intellectual reward with working with my hands, and there’s definitely something to gain here (with blacksmithing) in thinking through all the different processes.”

Henthorn purchased all the necessary equipment and set up a rig in his backyard. He took a few classes, watched videos online and soon found himself able to reliably create standard hooks. Over time, he started to branch out and experiment to create other ornamental objects.

Henthorn now enjoys making functional items — including candleholders and wine glass holders — that he often gifts to friends and family members.

To create a piece, Henthorn uses a coal-fired forge to heat metal on hot coals. He then uses hammers and tongs to shape the heated metal on classic anvils. The most satisfying step in the process, he said, is quenching a hot piece in water and watching the steam billow out as the piece cools.

As with his other hobbies, like fishing, Henthorn finds blacksmithing a relaxing outlet. He often finds himself around town engaging with people and the local history — giving bike tours, restoring cemeteries — and he enjoys taking time to slow down and work with his hands.

A photo of a wine glass holder made through blacksmithing
Thomas Henthorn made this wine glass holder. (Photo by Thomas Henthorn)

“Out in Flint, I’m the history guy out there doing the history things in town. So, (blacksmithing) is just one of the many ways I can kind of relax,” he said.

Henthorn’s interest in blacksmithing intersected with his passion for teaching when he started leading classes at a makerspace in Flint.

Factory Two, which two of Henthorn’s friends opened in 2018, provides opportunities for members of the community to create items in classes including stained glass, textile printing, leatherworking, sewing and tie-dying. The workshop is sponsored by UM-Flint’s College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of History.

When the studio opened, the owners offered him the opportunity to teach blacksmithing classes. Henthorn said he jumped at the chance to share his knowledge and the history of blacksmithing with the community.

“I’m a public scholar, so it’s my job to get off campus and bring history to people in the community through content that’s based on research and the rigors of the discipline,” he said. “So in one sense, it’s a hobby, but it’s also kind of part of my job, too.”

Henthorn teaches a beginning class every Wednesday, helping community members of all ages learn the basics of blacksmithing. Those in his beginner classes leave having crafted a bottle opener. Henthorn also leads an open-forge class where people can come in and forge items on their own as he supervises.

“Everybody likes to try it and give it a shot. And it’s a really nice reward when you see people come back and they keep coming back,” Henthorn said.

A photo of an incense holder made through blacksmithing
Thomas Henthorn made this incense holder. (Photo by Thomas Henthorn)

One of Henthorn’s students — who first took his introductory blacksmithing course five years ago — found a passion for blacksmithing and now teaches Factory Two’s knife-smithing class.

“The cool thing about makerspace is it’s very community oriented. It’s a lot about the relationships that happen and how knowledge is transferred through relationships, and it’s really pretty cool to see how that works. So, that’s pretty rewarding to see,” Henthorn said.

Henthorn now takes his history students to the workshop where he shows them how nails were created in the ages before modern metalworking, before industrialization shifted production from the craftsperson to the factory.

“It’s a way for students to think about progress and any sort of historical change,” Henthorn said. “It’s a way for me to explore in kind of a different way how to get students to kind of speak about historical concepts and stuff too, so I enjoy that.”

While Factory Two is open to the larger Flint community, Henthorn said, he enjoys finding opportunities to connect with other members of the university outside of the campus setting.

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“We tend to be a little cloistered, no matter how much we try, at universities. So, it’s nice to run into people who don’t do the same thing you do. And that, I think, that’s an important part of a hobby: the social aspect of it,” Henthorn said.

Above all, Henthorn said, he hopes those who attend his classes and try their hand at blacksmithing will be inspired to tackle other challenges in their lives.

“Blacksmithing is a highly specialized kind of skill; and whether I’m in the classroom at Factory Two or I’m in the classroom on campus, I try to convince everybody that with a little hard work, there’s nothing you can’t pick up and do,” Henthorn said.

“Blacksmithing isn’t an innate ability in me. I’m good at it because I worked really hard at it and practiced a lot, and I try to get people to think more in that kind of mindset. So, if you could conquer blacksmithing, you could probably figure out something else that seems out of reach to you.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

My first month as chair of my department. I made numerous mistakes, got my hand slapped repeatedly, but learned what supportive and forgiving people work on my campus.

What can’t you live without? 

My dogs (and coffee).

Name your favorite spot on campus. 

Wilson Park. It’s a great space with a fantastic history.

What inspires you? 

My wife.

What are you currently reading?

Erik Larson, “The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War.”

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Father Thomas Firestone, my pastor.

What is your favorite vacation spot?

Drummond Island.

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