To my left stand two men. Flames descend from their hands, cascading down in sheaths to the slag-ridden floor. A group of boys huddle together, deeply immersed in conversation. One holds an object while the others look on in awe, voicing how excited they are to finally see their hard work come to life.
“Come on boys, sit down and I’ll bring your pieces to you,” a man — obviously the head honcho — calls out between a break in the flames.
The boys sit in their respective chairs, eager to hold their finished products. Each receives something shiny and sharp. I glance over, trying not to stare too wide-eyed. In their hands, they hold knives, glistening in the light of the bulbs above. The man notices me and smiles, calling me over: “Hi, and welcome to The Blacksmith Experience!”
Jerry Gardner, founder and owner of The Blacksmith Experience (theblacksmithexperience.com) in Daphne, took a winding path to the 3,500-year-old craft. After serving in the military and working in construction, he discovered blacksmithing quite by accident. Living in Oil City, Pennsylvania, at the time, he and his wife were strolling down the street when they heard the clank of metal. They immediately set out to find the source. After following the sounds, they discovered what’s called a “hammer in,” or a group of individuals who come together to work on their blacksmith pieces. As soon as he spotted the sparks flying off the anvils, Gardner was in love.
“I swear, sparks were quite literally flying!”
After this magic moment, Gardner searched for a mentor and connected with Jim Hoffman, a colonial ironwork expert.
“I loved being able to get a solid background in ironwork that most people aren’t familiar with,” Gardner says. “It opened my eyes to how far blacksmithing has come — moving away from solely function to a combination of function and artwork.”
Post-colonial studies, Gardner set out to discover his niche in the blacksmithing world, settling on functional art.
“I made everything from railings to gates, even intricate furniture,” he says. “One of the favorites my team and I created was a mirror with steel woven in and around to form a wineglass holder. Basically, we took a piece of glass and drew a super random pattern and roughed up the edges of the mirror. We drilled holes and manipulated steel so that it resembled tree branches. From there, we wove the branches through and around the mirror. Once it was completed, there were places on the steel tree to hang dozens of wineglasses.”
Gardner’s passion for intricate, functional art was put on pause during the 2008 recession. He moved it to the back burner and returned to “the real world.”
“My business took a turn for the worse, so I had to get a ‘real job.’ I knew I wanted to get back to blacksmithing, but I wasn’t sure if that would be possible. I needed to provide for my family, so I did what I had to do.”
Despite putting a pause on his passion for a few years and returning to construction management, Gardner never really stopped blacksmithing. Though not physically practicing the trade, blacksmithing was always at play in his mind. In 2018, when he saw the opportunity to jump back in, he took it.
“Because of the rising popularity of the History channel show, ‘Forged in Fire,’ more and more people became interested in blacksmithing.” Gardner started teaching classes out of the space in his backyard.
Aiming to be more cautious than the first go-round, he taught night classes at first. “I knew people needed to change after work, so classes started at 6:15 p.m. I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors, so we’d wrap up around 9:15 p.m.” Pretty soon, there was more demand than there was Gardner!
“People wanted weekend classes, so I gave them weekend classes … but then they wanted more hours than there were in the day, so I decided to just go for it.”
Six weeks ago, Gardner made the transition from “real world job” to his longtime passion project. “The Blacksmith Experience is all about having a good time,” he says. “I’m not here to teach people the ‘right way’ of doing things. I want everyone to learn about themselves while they do something really cool.”
This month, The Blacksmith Experience is moving into a new location in Spanish Fort. Currently, Gardner offers a three-hour class, but they can last longer — if students can stand the heat. “If we went up to six hours, it’d be a near-death experience!”
Along with the blacksmithing classes, Gardner initiated Forging a Difference, a nonprofit organization that offers a creative outlet for veterans, service members on active duty or law enforcement officers. When asked how the idea came about, Gardner smiles, tears glistening in his eyes.
“One night, a man named Michael Jacob Bailey called me and asked to talk in person. He told me that he was a veteran who suffered severe brain damage while overseas that developed into brain cancer. Rather than give up, Michael wanted to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary with his wife, Tina. Gardner welcomed both of the Baileys into his shop, where they decided to make knives. Despite putting up a hard fight, Michael never finished his blade, passing away in February 2020.”
The Baileys inspired Gardner to do something for all veterans. “I saw that there was something about The Blacksmith Experience that helped to heal those in need, even if temporarily. And so, I created a space to share experiences — whether it be talking about war or just being around people who’ve gone through similar things.”
The loved ones who share lives with those who serve also find support at Forging a Difference for the struggles they go through behind closed doors. Though the nonprofit is in its infancy, Gardner hopes to have the organization fully self-sustainable in the next two to three years.
From braving the “real world” to the stock market crash to a global pandemic, Jerry Gardner has come out better than ever before.
“There’s something about this that just clicks. I want to be the guy that guides people, teaches them and helps to create an outlet. And spreading awareness of what we’re doing is the biggest help. At the end of the day, we just want people to try this out and see what it can do for them. Who knows? It could become something of a steel sanctuary.”