Ashland Forge about us:
From the beginning,
DeBey, a Los Angeles native, came to Ashland in 1969 from Humboldt State College, seeking a master’s degree in Outdoor Education at Southern Oregon College, with a goal of being a naturalist (and, he adds, getting deferments from the draft). He was part of the “back to the land” movement of young seekers of the early ‘70s, he says, and sought the freedom of simple living, close to nature.
In a chance encounter, DeBey met master blacksmith Al Bart here and got mentored for several years, picking up a good foundation for a career, he notes. The work furthered his values of simplicity and kindness to the planet, as he was able to recycle and repurpose so much castoff metal and find antiquated tools with lots of life left in them.
DeBey is the metalwork go-to guy in town and his work can be seen all over — including at the Perozzi-Butler fountain in Lithia Park, the now-recast Pioneer Mike statue in the Plaza and the ironwork at Peerless Restaurant.
Looking back on a full life, he says, “I don’t have many regrets. If I do, it’s not about things I did, but things I didn’t do. My philosophy is: ‘Everything you need is within five feet of you. You just have to look for it.’”
History of the Shop,
The 1955 Nash Farina station wagon sputtered to a stop near the intersection of Tolman Creek Road and Siskiyou Boulevard in the late spring of 1976. Steam bellowed from under the hood as Denny (Dennis Scott DeBey) and Diane DeBey looked around for possible sources of water, soon to appear as a spigot emanating from the empty hulk of a building on the corner. Once the radiator was topped off, they called Bud Wilkerson, a real estate agent whose sign on the property indicated that the structure was for sale. Bud was hard to ignore as he pulled up in his 1952 Chevy station wagon. Within a few weeks the purchase was completed and the DeBeys were the new owners of three commercial structures that were to become General Good & Variety Store (Loose Ends, Bella Flora, The White Orchard Restaurant and now Kokepelli Kayak Shop), the Ashland Forge and the Yoga Center (first location of Lenny Freedman& Pyramid Juice, this after Lenny and Jim Sims had run a juice bar in the rear of Lithia Grocery).
While going to school, he drove a bus and taught for Head Start when not busy being a Back to the Land devotee. He had a cow, some chickens when he first came to town.
During his drive around town, he spotted many wood stoves, most past their prime, abandoned in side and back yards. He soon corrected the situation by rounding up a collection of these heaters, then taking a welding class at Central Point High School. After buying the Tolman Creek corner, he opened up the Ashland Forge and New Age Stoves.
Denny watched a few blacksmiths in action and rapidly came to the conclusion that he had enough mettle for the metal.
The Butler-Perozzi Fountain Terrace in Lithia Park — was one of many projects Denny DeBay brought back to life when he came — to Ashland.
Tim Bewley met up with Denny after having completed a seven-week course with Frank Turley of the Turley Forge Blacksmithing School in Santa Fe, N.M. Though Tim moved on after three months, Denny was left with fire in his belly and New Age twinkle in his eyes.
Al Bert, a master blacksmith, was next to find the forge. He taught at the forge, there sharing his life & knowledge with students from the State of Jefferson. He arrived being told that he had a year to live. Twelve years later he was laid to rest just south of the Oregon border under a metal cross forged by all his students. Many strong hands pounded red-hot metal in heart-felt tribute.
Throughout Ashland, many examples of Denny work can be seen, though much of it has been custom work for private residences: railings, gates, fireplace surrounds, latches, door handles & anything that can be forged, except checks. Iron Mike on the Plaza has been rescued twice by Denny, the last time requiring the repair of a broken arm. Denny worked on several fronts towards the restoration of the Butler-Perozzi Fountain Terrace in Lithia Park. The gate work & bamboo & at the Peerless Gardens on Fourth Street was custom crafted by the Ashland Forge. The number of eclectic, nameless repairs he has effected is beyond count.
As Denny looks into the red embers toward retirement, Ashland Forge has other hands to ensure that metal will be mastered.
I was cycling up Tolman Creek Road the other day and, as I was already at a crawl, took in the look of Ashland Forge and the Kokepelli Kayak Shop. I felt something converge and pulled over to take a sip of water & it was the water! Denny stopped here in 1976 and needed water. He has been a whitewater fan for the last 20 years. A Kayak shop is now where he first found water for his Nash& bubbling radiator. Denny laughs easily and knows full well how interconnected this town was and, in some circles, continues to be. He is liked by all who know him. He works with fire in a town called Ashland. What could be more perfect?
At the heart of metalwork is blacksmithing. To find out a bit more about the process, I visit Southern Oregon’s premier blacksmith, Dennis DeBey of Ashland Forge. Dennis has been working as a blacksmith for 40+ years. Step into his forge, and you feel like you’ve stepped back a millennium. Indeed, many of the tools Dennis uses haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages.
He works on commission and also shares his knowledge. “I am 72 and I can’t do this forever,” Dennis says. “So I’m teaching. I gain the most from teaching.” He’s helped students with senior projects and gives school tours. And he encourages girls to get into blacksmithing. When charter schools come to visit, he usually asks the smallest girl in the class if she thinks she can bend a long stick of steel. No one thinks she can, including herself. So Dennis places the steel in the fire until it’s orange-hot in the middle. He holds one end and tells the girl to take the other and walk at an angle toward him. The steel bends into a “U” shape. Everyone is amazed—including the girl who bent the seemingly immutable steel. “What we think is hard is really pliable,” Dennis says.
When he talks about metalworking, he emphasizes: “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s where you hit and how. It’s finesse.” He adds, “If you beat something up, it will just look beat up.”
Dennis got his start with a blacksmithing class at night school during the Carter administration. He says, “Everyone was going back to the land, so I started out making wood-burning stoves out of recycled parts.” He still likes to slow down the use of new metals and has a sprawling junkyard behind his forge, filled with everything from rusted bicycle spokes to old salon hair driers.
In his shop, we walk past a award statue I recognize: one of the Ashland Independent Film Festival awards. Dennis created the concept for the small sculpture and has been making the statues for 14 years.
While rummaging through tools, Dennis says, “The qualification for this job is the ability to understand what people want. It’s about communication.” As is his work: it communicates strength and beauty. He says, “I put art into anything I do.”
He pulls out a kind of metal punch, at the end of which is a tiny heart. “It’s my maker’s mark, my signature,” He says. “I only put it on work I like.”
There is plenty of heart to be found on and in the work Dennis has forged.
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