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"The World's Greatest Horseshoer"

by Peter Drake and Charlie Helton

reprinted by permission: American Farriers Journal

Located in east central Indiana lies the small town of Hagerstown, the home of William Jennings Wedekind, a farrier who was given the title of "The World's Greatest Horseshoer" by the judges at the 1892 Chicago World's Fair for his impressive exhibit of horseshoes and horseshoeing tools. The display case he exhibited is seven feet tall, twelve feet wide, and eighteen inches deep. It is made of tiger maple and trimmed in black walnut. Wedekind died in 1926, leaving the case and its contents to his widow. She kept it at her home in Hagerstown and proudly showed it to anyone who was interested until her death in 1957. Today it is housed at the Wayne County, Indiana Historical Museum.

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William Wedekind's award-winning display case is impressive for itself as well as its contents.

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William Wedekind Wins Title at World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago

     At the exposition, the display was located in the western corner of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building and was a great attraction to the visitors who thronged the building. It consists of about 350 pieces, approximately 250 of which at that time were samples of the latest improved methods of shoeing, counterbalancing, and gaiting horses. All were hand-made, hand-finished and polished, and arranged in an attractive manner in the handsomely finished and upholstered case.

 

The display case and its contents took Wedekind two and one-half years to complete. Its estimated value at the time of completion was $20,000. at the close of the World's Fair, Wedekind declined an offer of $100,000 for his exhibit. He turned down numerous job offers to return home and serve the small community that he loved. He kept the exhibit in his shop. Due to his talent and ability, his services were soon sought after nationwide. Horses were brought to him for shoeing, and he also traveled extensively, shoeing some of the best horses in the country.

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This picture of Wedekind is the centerpiece of the horseshoeing exhibit.

 

Although Bill Wedekind was only in his mid-20's at the time his display was completed, he attained a proficiency in his art that commanded the admiration of horsemen and horseshoers throughout the world. The award of the highest medal at the World's Columbian Exhibition (the theme for the 1892 Chicago World's Fair to commemorate the four hundred years since Columbus discovered America) was but a fair recognition of his excellent work.

 

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In the center of the case is this miniature working smithy, complete with anvil, forge, blower, and tools.

 

At the award ceremonies, Wedekind swept all of the prizes in his division. He won for the best workmanship, for the largest quantity of items displayed, for the latest cuts in shoes for gaiting horses, and for the latest cuts in tools: keeping rivets tight in tongs, using tribble gearing in nippers, and inlaying felt into handles for absorbing moisture.

 

The judges also gave a special award, a scroll which said: "To Mr. William Wedekind of Hagerstown, Indiana, for his exhibit of horseshoes and horseshoe tools, we give an award for peculiar genius and advancement shown by an adaptation of tools which results in a product of superior excellence and adaptability to purposes required and which displays merit in both workmanship and finish."

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These photos show some of Wedekind's hand-made tools on display at the exposition.

 

The awards for his placings and a picture of Bill Wedekind, showing him bare chested with arms folded, form the center of the display. All around him are tools and bits forged from one solid piece of steel without a weld. The items on display include a pair of nippers with trible gearing used for pinching nail heads, a tool for clinching nails that really clinches (with an adjustable lower jaw that always stays next to the nail head), hoof testers, lightweight tongs so balanced in your hand that they create a feel you must experience to believe, hammers that defy description with their unequaled quality of workmanship, an adjustable hoof knife, improved swedges for race shoes, and swedge block holders.

 

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The shoes in the case (over a hundred of them) are all numbered and identified. All are hand-made and hand-polished.

In the center foreground of the display is a small man with a forge, anvil, and full set of tools in miniature. The little smithy heats the bar stock, turns to the anvil, and strikes blows. All the minute tongs work, as does the blower on the forge. At the World's Fair, the scale model moved electrically. Also exhibited is the first shoe that Wedekind made, at the age of nine, five years before he started his apprenticeship. He learned his trade in a wagon shop almost adjacent to the shop he would later own. He soon became a skilled artisan in metals. His father was a carriage maker.

 

In order to produce high speed, brilliant motion, or just a very lazy, easy way of going, a horse must be balanced so that his movements are square and steady. In this collection of handwork, Wedekind forged the following shoes to help achieve such objectives: the even balance, the side weight, the toe weight, and the heel weight.

     The case contains 126 shoes for work, trotting, pacing, turf, and saddle horses. There are shoes for interfering, quarter grabbing, and knee hitting. The shoe to prevent a horse from striking his knees is a plain shoe with a hollow grove inlaid with rubber on its ground surface, extending around the circumference of the shoe. There are shoes with modified grooves at the heel to obtain bar pressure. A plain shoe with short and long bars was designed to help prevent hitting hocks. One of the shoes is designed for balancing and squaring the gait of horses when they are inclined to rack, pace or shuffle. This shoe is used primarily in slow-gaiting saddle horses. Another shoe is designed for relief of soreness in the flexor tendon; another helps quarter cracks, where toe and heel calks are required. A diagonal bar shoe is designed for trotters to help prevent hoof spreading.

     A front shoe for general road and business purposes may be may be regarded as a standard pattern for Wedekind's general use. It is 3/8" thick by 3/4" wide, weighing about 12 ounces. It can vary in weight where necessary to suit the horse to which it is applied. A hinged shoe for spreading heels is so uniquely made that it is one of the most fascinating shoes in the display. there is also a brace for weak or run-under heels, a mule shoe, and an oxen shoe.

     There are numerous bar shoes for helping lameness and improving gaits: a three-quarter bar shoe, a hind double bar shoe with a long outside branch to prevent spreading and cross-firing, a bar shoe for navicular disease with a plate welded over the seat, a hind bar shoe with a long outside branch for long striding horses and weak tendons, a bar shoe designed for racing, a bar shoe with open space on the outside to prevent interfering, and a half bar shoe to prevent interfering.

     The metals Wedekind used for his shoes were aluminum, bronze, brass, and steel. Aluminum bronze was at that time an entirely new metal. It was made by combining 2/3 brass with 1/3 aluminum. One shoe made of pure aluminum is so light in weight that it floats when placed in water. This shoe was obviously not tough enough to be used on a horse. Also on exhibit is a gold-plated shoe, a brass alloy shoe, and a platinum shoe. Wedekind is also credited with making the first rubber horseshoe.


     A void has always existed in the educational process of today's farrier regarding the roots of our profession. How good are we? Where did our knowledge originate? How good were the farriers who pioneered our profession? Have the shoers in today's high-tech society added to the farrier tree of knowledge? These are all questions that have existed in our minds because of the period of time our profession lay dormant during the evolution of the engine as a source of power.

 

 

Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" was apparently written about someone like Bill Wedekind. For certainly "a might man was he," as evidenced by the legacy he left behind for future farriers to use as a model to gauge their own personal achievements and establish standards of perfection. He has become a hero to these writers through his unparalleled ability to transform iron with a forge, anvil, and hammer into works of art as seen through the eyes of a farrier.

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William Jennings Wedekind's burial site in West Lawn Cemetery is marked with this unusual gravestone that includes a bronze plaque and is topped with a stone anvil.

 

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This article appeared in the December 1987 issue of American Farriers Journal.


At the time, Peter Drake and Charlie Helton were both active farriers in Indiana and members of the Indiana Farriers Association.