OXFORD — Being a blacksmith in today’s world is more a curiosity-inducing craft than the critical trade it was for hundreds of years.

Ryan Adams of Otisfield has honed it into a cross between history lesson and performance art. He works in his Bell Hill Forge workshop and travels to events to demonstrate his trade.

Adams learned the blacksmith business as an apprentice when he spent a year in Wyoming.

“I was in my early 20s,” he said, during a demonstration at the Oxford Fair in Oxford last month. “I had an interest in it since I was a kid when I saw my first demo but didn’t know how to get into it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as far as college went.

“So when a friend married in Wyoming I went to the wedding and decided to stay on a while,” he said. “I was introduced to someone else who had lived in Maine. We hit it off and I asked if he wanted help in his shop in exchange for the education and he agreed to that. It started out being nights and weekends.”

Adams returned to Oxford Hills a year later, in 1996. He used his newly-learned craft as a hobby and then a side business as he pursued a career in education, teaching math at Oxford Hills Middle School in Paris for several years.

Facing teacher burnout and with his wife Kathryn’s blessing, Adams swapped math for the head custodial job at Otisfield Elementary School.

The family of Tanisha Damon and Travis York, seated, and Kayden Damon, of Greenwood, attend a blacksmithing demonstration at the Oxford Fair in September by Ryan Adams of Bell Hill Forge in Otisfield. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“I had a conversation with my wife, who is also a teacher, ‘how would you feel about me spending more time in the blacksmithing shop?’” Adams recalled. “The custodial work is for health insurance. The forge is still nights and weekends. I bill myself as a general blacksmith.”

Adams started demonstrating at crafts and agriculture fairs. Those appearances, along with word of mouth, account for most of his business. His first event was at a trapper’s meet in West Paris. His current blacksmith tour takes him to fairs in Waterford, Oxford, Windsor and the Common Ground in Unity.

“I found that craft fairs are not the right place for what I do,” Adams said. “But the fairs I do now are always productive and lead to orders for custom work.

“I’ll do decorative hardware for folks. Make tools, lathes, that sort of thing. It’s all commission work.”

Weathering the pandemic was not easy with major events shut down by public gathering restrictions. Last year Adams could not make any appearances. And though the smaller events he works took place in 2021, the Common Ground Fair was canceled and still left a void in his business.

Adams made the best of the opportunities still available. Sept. 17 he was at work at the Oxford County Fair, forging tools and accessories and educating fairgoers.

He is an engaging performer as much as a craftsman.

“A long time ago people thought blacksmiths were magic because they take that red iron ore out of the ground, a red rock, and turn it into metal,” Adams announced to the small crowd seated in the forge shed at the Oxford fairground. “And turn that metal into useful things. No one knew how they did it. They were very secretive and didn’t let anyone who wasn’t a blacksmith watch their process. It went in as a rock and came out as these metal items. So people thought that blacksmiths had control over nature. They must be magic.”

As he spoke about the history and the technical aspects of turning metal into tools, Adams put on a step-by-step exhibit, taking a slender iron rod and fashioning it into a well-designed decorative leaf. Normally a project that would take less than 10 minutes, the narrated demonstration went on for about half an hour as he frequently paused to show the transfiguration and took the time to answer every question from a curious audience.

The Damon-York family of Greenwood got double value during Adams’ demonstration.

“Today is our education day,” said mom Tanisha Damon of her 11-year-old son Kayden. “He has chosen to do home schooling so we’re going around to find things he can be quizzed on later.”

Ryan Adams of Otisfield, right, shares trade secrets for modern blacksmithing at the Oxford Fair in September. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Dad Travis York added, “I have the burning interest for this. I’d like to do it. I have a couple anvils. We have the space.

“I’m not set up but I’ve seen a lot of these propane forges,” he said. “I was going to try to set up an old water tank and set up a propane one for now.”

“It’s much easier to pick up now,” Adams explained. “There is a blacksmith school right in Auburn, the Northeast of Metalwork.

“It is very simple to build a coal forge, it’s way easier than gas. In the long run when you get used to it you’ll be much happier with it.”

“You will be seeing me on your Facebook page,” York said.

Adams promotes his work primarily through his Facebook page and Instagram (Bellhillforge.5076798) account.

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