On a beautiful Saturday morning in the fresh spring air, I head down dirt roads toward Cloverdale Forge. As I ease my car up the long drive toward the main cabin, Matt waves me over through the open door of his family's log cabin home. The place is a treasure. I ooh and aah over every detail - the hand-woven baskets hanging from the ceiling in the front parlour, the crocheted quilts thrown across the upstairs rail, the pots and pans resting on hooks in the kitchen. I can't stop commenting on the beauty of the place, and Matt, brewing me a cup of jasmine tea, shrugs and says, "You get used to it."
He may play it cool, but you can tell Matt takes pride in his family's home. He pulls an old photo album off the shelf and shows me pictures from when they built the place. The land has been in his family for four generations. When his parents constructed the house we're in now back in the seventies and eighties, they "built is as they could afford it, so it took about ten to fifteen years." The home is truly a labour of love. His mom peeled every last log in the cabin; "She told us 'I could get a log peeled in two hours, because that was how long your naps were.' She'd put us on the screened porch so she could hear when we got up." The four rafters in the home were all lifted by hands, not cranes. Matt jokes that his family "burned through a set of friends on each one." Matt's dad would tell people, "It takes more work that way because I have to explain it to them each time, but I still have a bunch of friends, instead of enemies." Another smaller, timber-wood peg hut on the land was built by friends and family for the price of "Two kegs of beer and sandwiches."
The forge, where Matt does his work, "was one of the original buildings on the farm." Although he admits with a grin, "I replaced the north wall, the south wall, the door and the roof. So there's one wall that's original." The forge is a wonder. Matt moves fluidly from one spot to the next, putting on his apron and goggles, grabbing his tools, stoking up the fire. He insists that I make something with him: a simple iron hook. Step by step, he leads me through the process, explaining how and why things are done. He's an encouraging teacher. He tells me I'm a fast learner and brushes aside my self-deprecating remarks about my handiwork.
He says, "I love demonstrating. I don't think people always realize what blacksmithing is. Most people's exposure to it is Festival du Voyageur, so they see you make hooks and traps and chisels and trade items and people don't realize all the things you can make." Back in the log-house, Matt pulls out a book filled with intricate sculptural art, all made by blacksmiths. "I'm trying to show people that you can make just about anything. It's like hard clay." And watching him move through the forge, I can't help but agree. Matt manipulates each item with dexterity and skill, twisting and sculpting the metal like clay moulded with a hammer and anvil instead of hands.
FBWS - You've mentioned your dad a few times, is that how you got into blacksmithing?
MJ - In some ways, but not exactly. The month I was born, he started at Lower Fort Garry. He wanted to be home more for the kids and the Fort was close by, so he applied for a blacksmithing position. He sort of buffaloed his way through the interview. They asked about is experience and he told them, "We've got a forge of the farm!" Even though he never used it to blacksmith. And so when they gave him the job, he had to learn. He spent another eight, ten years at the Fort learning it. When I was younger, I never really got into it. You know, doing the same thing as your dad isn't cool. But when I turned 18, I got a job at Lower Fort Garry - again, it was close and convenient. And they were like, "Jenkins, Jenkins... You're a blacksmith; your dad's a blacksmith!" And I was like, "Well, we've got a forge on the farm!" and then I had to learn. It was a job that went from May through September, so I would fly home from Montreal, work the whole summer, and then fly back.
FBWS - Tell me more about your time in Montreal.
MJ - I went to school there for engineering, but when I finished university, I realized there wasn't enough creativity for me in it. I went down to John Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. (That's where mom is right now.) I had more time than money, so I did the work exchange program there. I made everything from a pair of shoes to a lot of blacksmithing, quilting, weaving - a little bit of everything. When I got back home, I muddled around and started working in the shop.
FBWS - Did you start selling your stuff right away, or is that something that developed over time?
MJ - My dad used to sell at Folk Fest and craft shows, and after awhile, I started getting involved in that too. I didn't start to try selling things seriously here in Manitoba until 2009. Even then, I have a day job, so it's a "when I get to it kind of thing." The day job takes precedence.
FBWS - A lot of the stuff that I see on your Instagram is bottle openers, hooks, axes, what do you like making best? Where do you see your business going?
MJ - I started doing that - gift-type items - more as a marketing thing, but it's not what I really enjoy doing. I like doing the house jewelry, like the railings and the brackets and custom bits. I think it's more cost effective, but it's nice to have the bread and butter. When I have a slow period, I can crank out a bunch of bottle openers and drop them off at Normandy Shoppe or soon, Pollock's Hardware. It fills in the cracks.
FBWS - How would you describe your client base?
MJ - I've had some people come to me and say, "Well, why should I buy an ax from you?" and I'm like, "Well, you probably shouldn't if you're asking that question." The reason you should buy an ax from me is because you want an ax that you can't buy in a store, or you appreciate the process, or you want the story. And, for the most part, what I'm selling is the story.
FBWS - I feel like there's been a shift in Winnipeg culture. Traditionally, we have a reputation for being cheap, but more and more people want to surround themselves with things that they know where they came from. And they're willing to pay for that.
MJ - Absolutely. There's more appreciation for that process. And I'm happy to be on the front end of that wave. Like how everything in this house has a story. The baskets hanging in the front were made by my sisters, mom, dad, some of them with Manitoba grasses. I've even got a couple of baskets up there that I made! You can pick up anything around here, and I can tell you the story. ... Unless we just bought that.
FBWS - You've mentioned that you have a day job, and I feel like a lot of creative people have to do that to supplement their income. How do you balance those two?
MJ - The day job, fortunately, is designing metal things. So I design metal things all day, and then come home and make metal things all evening. I usually get thirty to forty hours a week in the shop. I don't think people always realize how much time goes into it after hours. And in the winter, it's super tough, because there's no heat in there, so I'll come home from work, and by the time I can get enough heat to get work done, I'll maybe get two hours in on the weekdays, and then get more done on the weekends.
FBWS - Is summer your busiest time then?
MJ - It's certainly when I get the most work done. December is crazy though. I prefer to get orders in for Christmas stuff by November, but there are always those December orders I have to crank out.
FBWS - You're going to be at the DIY Homesteader Festival in June. Tell me about your involvement with that.
MJ - I went down to check it out last summer. I just attended. They do a lot of farmer stuff: beekeeping, goat keeping, composting toilets. This is their second year and I'm going to help people make garden tools, campfire grills and tripods. One of the things we did at The Fort was cook over an open fire. It takes a set of tools that can be made by a blacksmith.
FBWS - I noticed a sign from Lower Fort Garry in your forge with a waving blacksmith. Is that you?
MJ - No, it's my dad. When he was at Lower Fort Garry, that was the exit sign. He passed about ten years ago, so they told us we should have it. At first, my mom kept it in the house because she missed him. After a while, we told her it was starting to look a little crazy, so now he stays in the forge.
FBWS - You said before that you currently live in Winnipeg, and that your family's owned this land for four generations. Did your parents always live out here, or have they come back and forth like you?
MJ - When they were first married, they were living in a basement apartment in Osborne Village. The first day, when they finally moved back out here, my dad threw open the door in the morning in his birthday suit and yelled, "Hello world, I'm back!" My mom says she didn't see him with much clothing in the morning after that. He refused to put curtains on the windows because he said he spent too much time and money on those windows to cover them up. When my mom asked him about privacy, he told her, "If they see something they didn't want to see, well then that's their fault for looking."
FBWS - I can see how freeing it would be to move out here. The land, this house, there's something about it.
MJ - It's like a warm hug.