Joe Tanner: The Man Behind the Lane

June 13, 2012   // 3 Comments

joe_tanner

By Ann Fowler 

Nearly every Oak Hill resident knows Joe Tanner Lane: if not for the shortcut from William Cannon to Highway 290, then as the chief headache and bottleneck as Highway 290 empties into a one-lane traffic jam at the Joe Tanner Lane traffic signal. Only a few know of the lane’s namesake, and fewer still remember the man personally.

Joe Tanner lived in Oak Hill when residents numbered in the hundreds, not thousands; when Highway 290 was an unhurried two-lane road; when most families lived on ranches or farms.  Joe Tanner was an important part of Oak Hill – he was the local blacksmith. Only a line can be found written here and there about Tanner. But several local residents remembered him.

The process of blacksmithing was impressive to onlookers. “All of the work was done with a coal forge, no electricity, no power tools,” said longtime resident Archie Ray Enochs. “Everything was hand-hammered and heated on a coal forge and hammered on an anvil. There was no electricity in the shop. [Tanner] was the only blacksmith here. There were a few people that had really small stuff of their own out in the barn or something like that, but for the most part everyone brought everything to Joe.”

 

Under a spreading chestnut-tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

 

A blacksmith usually heats metal until it softens and then “forges” it by using hand tools to shape it. Some blacksmiths, called farriers, specialize in shoeing horses, but the old-time smithy could make or fix anything. Towns depended on them.

Longtime resident Bill Maddox said of Joe Tanner, “He was really, really vital to the community in the older times. I’m 70 – when I was in my teens in those early years we didn’t have people in the Oak Hill area who had modern equipment to weld equipment, so we went to Joe Tanner, who did hammer welding, heating metal where you took broken pieces and welded them together.”

“He kept all the old farm equipment for the village maintained,” said Enochs. “There were a lot of small farms in this area, all down these creeks between here down around MoPac, 290. People farmed cotton, so they had to keep all their farm implements sharpened and maintained. Joe was the one that did it.”

Maddox described the blacksmith shop as 16 feet wide by 20 feet long. “It had doors at north and south end, as I recall, so you could open both ends, to keep it cool in summer. He had an anvil and forge. He used coal to heat the metal, to hammer it out in different shapes. He was a real master at tempering things, crowbar, sharpening plow points, knowing just how to watch certain colors of fire, red, plunge it in the fire, and go to a straw color. He knew all these things. He was a really first class blacksmith, at a time when it was really needed by a lot of us. He was well thought of in the community; he performed a really important service.”

 

 

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,

His face is like the tan;

His brow is wet with honest sweat,

He earns whate’er he can,

And looks the whole world in the face,

For he owes not any man.

 

Younger generations cannot fathom a time when they couldn’t run to WalMart or Target to purchase any necessity. Modern day farmers often send old farm equipment to junkyards because it’s cheaper to replace it than repair it. But that was not always the case.

Joe was a second-generation blacksmith. Some of the locals remember him attending Oak Hill schools, so he most likely was a lifelong Oak Hillian. He may have been a little slow when it came to school subjects, but he was a whiz when it came to his hammer and anvil.

Maddox recalled, “He was actually an artist at the work he could do. He made all sorts of things out of metal. Crowbars … He made a wash pot stand that was perfectly made, perfectly round. He had hammer-welded a used wagon wheel. It has metal rim. He used that wagon tire metal rim. It was a round hoop. The wash pot had 3 legs. The legs were about 2 feet high. With a wash pot you put a wood fire under it to get hot water to wash the clothes. It was really a beautiful piece of work.”

 

Week in, week out, from morn till night,

You can hear his bellows blow;

You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,

With measured beat and slow,

Like a sexton ringing the village bell,

When the evening sun is low.

 

Doris Jean Ellison recalls the sound of Joe Tanner’s blacksmith shop. “What I remember as a child — he was right across from the school. The rock building, that’s the old Oak Hill School. So Joe Tanner’s blacksmith shop was right across 290 from the school, so you could hear him working, hitting the anvil hard, doing metal work.”

Maddox also remembers the sound. “Going to school, old Oak Hill School, we could hear his hammering on the anvil all throughout the day. You’d hear him hammering on that anvil.”

Maddox recalled of Tanner, “He was a very strong fella. In shoeing a horse, sometimes when the horse would want to jerk its foot away, he could overpower it so he could finish shoeing. People have an idea that a blacksmith was strong — he was.”

The street now named for him “was a little gravel road,” recalled Enochs, with Joe’s shop at the corner.” It stood where now there is a median on Highway 290 West at Joe Tanner Lane. “He shod horses under the hackleberry tree. He’d tie a horse to the tree and if the horse was still unruly he would tie one foot up also to the tree and that made him a little bit easier to work with.”

Enochs recalls the street now known as Joe Tanner Lane as “a shortcut to get to the shop from over around the Beckett property area, over off Brodie and McCarty and that area, and I think it was eventually improved a little bit and eventually became a county road. It was a gravel county road when I was a kid. And it’s hard to believe how many of the roads were unnamed at one time. So I suppose in trying to identify it, it was eventually called Joe Tanner Lane.”

 

And children coming home from school

Look in at the open door;

They love to see the flaming forge,

And hear the bellows roar,

And catch the burning sparks that fly

Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

 

Enochs said local children were always welcome at Joe Tanner’s shop. “You had to be careful not to step on something hot. The floor in the shop was dirt and there were bits of horse shoes, shoe nails and things laying all around along with plenty of hammers and things.”

Ellison said, “He had a mulberry tree that we schoolchildren would go across and get leaves for silkworms.”

On occasion, 7-year old Enochs was asked by his dad, Buster, to take his horse over to Joe’s to get shod. “It was nothing to lead a horse across Highway 290,” he said. “Look both ways and lead the horse across the 2-lane highway, it was easy enough to do.”

Decades later Enochs still does impressions of Tanner. “Joe was somewhat of an eccentric,” he said. “He always said, ‘I say I say.’ Today I use that and locals know who I’m talking about.”

Ellison said, “I thought so many times — people wonder who Joe tanner is because of the street. No one knows who in the world that was. He was a character. He was eccentric. Quiet. Kept to himself. Yet he was so visible with his shop, and his house and his garden. He was outside all the time. He was a unique person.”

Tanner was not the hulking strongman people imagine when they hear the word blacksmith. “He was a small guy, kind of stooped from leaning over that forge and anvil,” said Enochs.

Added Ellison, “He was a thin man. I think he wore overalls all the time, kind of hunched.”

Maddox said, “He had horn-rimmed glasses, brown, I think. In later years he walked a little bent over. Seemed his posture was always like that. Might have been from bending over shoeing horses. I can’t remember … he was probably gray haired and bald, as I remember.”

 

He goes on Sunday to the church,

And sits among his boys;

He hears the parson pray and preach,

He hears his daughter’s voice,

Singing in the village choir,

And it makes his heart rejoice.

 

Tanner never married. “He was a bachelor, he lived there by himself,” recalled Ellison. “He was just a single man. I don’t even remember him having a car. I don’t know how he got around. I think he went over to Miss Martin’s store. That’s where Austin Pizza is now. That was a hardware store, plus they had some food, too. And a glass candy showcase, I remember that.”

But Tanner stayed busy despite the lack of a family. Enochs recalled, “I know they built quarry tools for the rock quarry industry — Convict Hill and other people around. And the county, as they improved county roads and widened them, had a whole crew of workers that did the fence work. They’d move the property fence over to widen the road, and I remember Joe … the county would bring all kinds of rock bars and stuff for him to sharpen — quite a few of those. It was almost an ongoing process to have the county fencing equipment in there being maintained.”

 

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,

Singing in Paradise!

He needs must think of her once more,

How in the grave she lies;

And with his hard, rough hand he wipes

A tear out of his eyes.

 

While Tanner had no family in Oak Hill, he was not alone. “He got bit by a rattlesnake in his garden,” said Enochs. “He killed the snake, put it in a paper sack, and walked over to the house and had my dad take him to the hospital and he stayed for a couple of hours and went back home. He took the snake to the hospital so he could show them what bit him. He was quite old when that happened.”

Fortunately the snakebite, brought on by his passion for gardening, did not do him in. “He was an avid gardener,” said Enochs. “He had a garden all around the blacksmith shop and all around his house. And he worked in the garden barefoot.”

Ellison remembered, “He gardened all the time, besides working in his blacksmith shop. He squatted down on the ground to do his work. It was so odd to see the way he sat. I just wish I had a picture of him working in his garden. I don’t know how he got his knees, and everything, squatting. I don’t know how to describe it. You’d think, ‘How did that man get in that position, old as he was?’ But he was comfortable.”

Enochs said Tanner often gave sacks full of beans or okra to other gardeners who in return gave him some of their own gardens’ bounty.

Maddox said Tanner had an outstanding garden. “He had the best snap beans, the best flavored. He had a perfectly kept garden. He took all the rocks out, so it looked perfect.”

 

Toiling—rejoicing—sorrowing,

Onward through life he goes;

Each morning sees some task begin,

Each evening sees it close;

Something attempted, something done,

Has earned a night’s repose.

 

“I watched. Shoeing horses is backbreaking. You’re stooped, holding up the horse’s foot and working on it leaned over. It’s hard work,” recalled Enochs. “He did a lot of work, just tool sharpening, hand making things, tools, from discarded plow parts. He made hay hooks, also called fargo hooks, so you had a handle on it, and could hook a bale of hay. He made those probably from old hay rakes. He took the tines off of one, made it into a hook for lifting hay bales. Most of the time someone would buy them or bring an old hay rake piece and basically have it custom made to their specifications.”

Maddox was impressed with Tanner’s work. “He was a master at what he did. Invaluable, indispensable to the community.” Maddox recalled Tanner sharing a new technology with the neighbors. “When I was really little, until about 4, we lived in Oak Hill, and we later moved further out, within hearing distance of Joe’s shop. He had a radio — a lot of us didn’t have one. It was the late 30s. Joe really seemed to be the only one with one in the immediate area. So he played it real loud. He wanted everyone to get the benefit. That was kind of a funny thing.”

Another funny thing was his fondness for liquor. Ellison said her husband, Bill, remembered Tanner always had a bottle of wine. Added Maddox, “Joe used to drink a little. He didn’t really get drunk. One time I had a shoe heel come off. The teacher let me go over [to Tanner’s shop and] Joe put it back on. I gave him a quarter and he headed up the road about a mile to the beer joint — I don’t remember him having a car — to get a beer. But I never saw him drunk.”

 

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,

For the lesson thou hast taught!

Thus at the flaming forge of life

Our fortunes must be wrought;

Thus on its sounding anvil shaped

Each burning deed and thought.

 

Maddox said, “My brother’s mare was the last horse that Joe shod, He gave me his tools, I guess getting into the mid-1960s. I used those tools myself. I started shoeing my own horse.”

Tanner’s death was much like his life: quiet, unassuming. “He lived in Oak Hill as long as he lived,” said Maddox. “Right at the end he probably became disabled, and went into a nursing home. He had no relatives in this part of the country. A brother in California I never saw. I think he did go into a nursing home. I don’t know where he’s buried. I think in the Patton Cemetery. But I’m not sure about that.

Enochs recalled, “When he had health, age problems, he moved to, I believe it was the Old Confederate Home on West Sixth Street, and I think now it’s University Apartments or something like that. He had no family, at least no family here. I don’t think anyone knows when he died. At some point they knew about it afterwards.”

Matt Miller, a present-day blacksmith in Maryland, recently told a journalist, “You have to be an odd type of person to be a blacksmith. I’ve done a lot of trades, and blacksmith work is the most diverse. You get dirty every day and work yourself to the bone. But I always have fun.”

We can only hope that Joe Tanner did as well.

 

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,

For the lesson thou hast taught!

Thus at the flaming forge of life

Our fortunes must be wrought;

Thus on its sounding anvil shaped

Each burning deed and thought.

 

The Village Blacksmith, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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3 COMMENTS

  1. By Noah, June 18, 2012

    I really enjoy reading these articles on local history. The intertwined poem is a nice touch!

    Reply
    • By vergil maples, October 4, 2012

      i spent a good part of my youth around cedar valley, and oak hill. read this artickle on joe tanner, i knew and saw him often, but learned a lot from this. thanks to a old friend, arch ray.

      Reply
  2. By Ken Polk, October 9, 2012

    My Dad ,Archie Polk ,ran the Circle C ranch for around 40 years,we used to take our horses to Joe Tanners to be shod.He would exclaim as we drove up,”I SAY I SAY ,aint got time to shoe today ,aint got time to shoe today”,my Brother Paul would reply ,I got a 6 pack with me ,he would reply ,”Tie ‘em up over there and I get to’em right away”. He grew turnups in his garden that were so big,quite a gardener he was.
    Another story ,a widow lady was there gettin her horse shod and Joe started showin off ,tellin her how strong he was ,he lifted his big ole heavy anvil over his head and sat it back down on the stump,got a crick in his back doin this and and couldnt straighten up. Many stories untold ,happened there.

    Reply

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