Forging a memorial to North Amherst’s horse-drawn history

  • Catherine Stryker works on cleaning old horse shoes found during the North Amherst renovation at what was the Black Smith Shop. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Catherine Stryker works on cleaning old horse shoes found during the North Amherst renovation at what was the Black Smith Shop. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Catherine Stryker works on cleaning old horse shoes found during the North Amherst renovation at what was the Black Smith Shop. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Horseshoes as originally observed by Catherine Stryker on North Amherst Library construction site. —Submitted Photo

  • Lewis J. Spear blacksmith shop, once located on the site of the current North Amherst Library. Submitted Photo—Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/2/2023 8:44:08 PM
Modified: 10/2/2023 8:43:08 PM

AMHERST — Several rusty iron horseshoes tossed next to a pile of dirt when construction started on an addition to the North Amherst Library caught Catherine Stryker’s attention more than a year ago.

An amateur historian, Stryker recognized the objects that had been unearthed as being part of Amherst’s long-lost agricultural and industrial heritage in an area of town once referred to as the Dirty Hands District.

“When they started digging, different horseshoes were being thrown up from their excavation,” Stryker said, reflecting on her immediate intervention, and then convincing Wright Builders workers to set aside any historic items they might find in the ground. “I thought they can’t be lost, and will sort it out later.”

What has developed since then is a project she is titling “For Want of a Nail,” drawing its name from the proverb that begins “for want of a nail the shoe was lost.”

Already receiving support from the Amherst Cultural Council through a $945 grant, the first part of her plan is creating a permanent exhibit to house the collection of a dozen horseshoes she now has in hand. That will include framing and displaying them in a cabinet, expected to be ready by the time the branch library reopens this fall.

“I find them very touching artifacts from the vanished horses,” Stryker said.

The display is to be accompanied by a narrative of the history of the blacksmith shops that once stood on the library site, along with photos and other artifacts, and will tie in with the District One Neighborhood Association’s planned history trail project. That will have several sites for people to explore throughout North Amherst, many related to the old mills that once made up the landscape.

The second part of Stryker’s project is for a sculpture of a horse’s head, with the neck, shoulders and flowing mane, to be placed nearby. Eric Dennis of Greenfield will be the sculptor for the artwork to be fabricated from horseshoes used by draft horses at Muddy Brook Farm.

As this will need more money, and buy-in from the community, Stryker is already fundraising, making appeals for contributions from residents.

Still, it is the history of the blacksmith operations at the site where Montague Road, Sunderland Road and North Pleasant Street converge that most fascinates Stryker. Before the library was built in 1892, the shop shows up on an 1856 map. In 1873, it was labeled as R.G. Puffer’s Blacksmith Shop, but by 1886 was run by Lewis J. Spear. In the 1890s, she said, Ward Cook and Pat Dowd were named as blacksmiths at the location, moved to just behind the new library building.

With the advent of the automobile and tractors, Stryker said, horses began to fall out of favor for work purposes, and by the end of World War II, blacksmith shops were no longer needed.

She suspects that the horseshoes would have been left in a pile, with some to be reused, while others that could not were buried on site as other developments occurred, including the eventual opening of a service and gas station.

Among the horseshoes in her collection is hand-forged bar shoe, tailor-made for a horse that needed strengthening across the frog on its hoof, a mule shoe with a longer profile, and a pony shoe, indicated by its smaller size.

Reaching out to the American Farrier’s Association, Stryker learned that some of the horseshoes she has are known as Phoenix keg shoes. Phoenix was a company that made horseshoes available by mail order, rather than having them made at a local blacksmith shop.

Stryker said another box of items collected from the library site has also been saved and may be incorporated, though she’s not sure exactly what’s in that box or where it is at the moment, but believes it will include some nails and edge toolmakers. “I’m hoping there will be more things,” Stryker said.

Before she gets the horseshoe display ready, she is using a toothbrush and other delicate items to scrape away some of the rust and show off the finer details.

“I will be giving them a vinegar bath and tidying them up a bit,” Stryker said.

While the display could become more expansive, even if limited to the 12 horseshoes, she expects the public will appreciate it.

“It will still be a lovely display,” Stryker said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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