Sparks fly from a welding torch in the shop at Coady's Metal Works at 110 Lime St. where Ron Coady has worked for more than three decades. Ron, a fourth-generation blacksmith, started as his father's apprentice in 1972. This morning, Ron is busy working on a sign frame for a store front. Two other employees work full time in the shop while Jo Coady keeps the office running smoothly upstairs.
Plastic milk crates full of cast iron fleur de lys fence toppers line one wall, while custom iron chairs, fireplace grates and a spiral staircase greet customers immediately as they enter. A cardboard cut-out of a dove has settled atop the mayhem, reminiscent of a time when churches were the mainstay of Coady's business.
Indeed, in the past, the majority of Coady's contracts were maintenance work for churches and the school board, as well as grapnels, hooks and hakapiks for the fishing and sealing industries. In fact, says Ron, there was a time when the forge was going non-stop. Although the forge is not stoked every day now, Ron still does his fair share of forge work.
"Now we do mainly custom fabrication for private residences. We work with landscape architects. Basically anything in iron, aluminium or stainless steel, we'll tackle," he says. "We're not really in competition with the bigger companies doing industrial work. We stay small in our work."
Ron, whose work can be seen all through the city, from fences and handrails on private homes to gates on commercial businesses on Water Street, says his favourite part of blacksmithing is the design work. "Pretty well everywhere I look, I see my work," says Ron, who has trouble thinking of his all-time favourite piece.
"I take a great deal of pride in all my work," he says with his contagious smile. "If I'm not happy with it, I don't put it out there. I love the reaction of the customer when they see the finished product."
Flipping through the St. John's Yellow Pages, Ron reveals 35 listings for welders but only one listing for a blacksmith, his own. "There's fellas doing (blacksmith work) on the side, as a hobby," he says, "but we're pretty well the last commercial forge in the city."
That wasn't the case a century ago when there were about a dozen active forges in St. John's. Throughout the era of the horse and buggy, Coady's went neck and neck with other firms like McGrath's and Roche's. Although they have changed location at least four times, the Coadys have had a blacksmith business in downtown St. John's since 1883. A poster on the office wall illustrates the various sites that Coady's has occupied throughout the downtown.
It all started in 1883 when William Coady left McGrath's forge on the west side of Hill o' Chips and set up his own blacksmith shop across from what is now the Sir Humphrey Gilbert Building on Duckworth Street.
William's son, Thomas, joined the shop in 1901 when he was 11 years old. This was a time when horse-drawn carriages lined the streets and Guglielmo Marconi was a common face on downtown streets. Thomas stuck with his father for 11 years before branching out on his own in 1912 on the New Gower Street site of the current City Hall.
History repeated itself when Thomas's son, William (Bill), began working in his father's shop in 1931. Thirty years later in 1961, he started Coady's Ornamental Iron Works Limited on the site of Trapper John's Pub on George Street.
In 1972, Bill changed location, moving further west on George where the Convention Centre now sits. He called the new business Coady's Metal Works, the same name it has today. Four years later he moved the business to Lime Street.
A big part of Bill's work when he started was sharpening picks for the city. In the 1930s, city workers spent a lot of time digging sewer lines and post holes, and thus went through a lot of picks in the run of a day. The picks were too bulky and heavy for workers to carry around replacements. To remedy this, the city issued their men little brass coins they could carry in their pockets. When they needed a new pick, they could go into any forge in the city and trade in their brass knock-out for a sharpened pick. At the end of every month, Bill would collect all the brass coins and bring them to City Hall with an invoice.
In the '30s and '40s there were far fewer automobiles navigating the streets of St. John's than there are today. Horse-drawn carriages were the norm, and it was not uncommon for Coady's to shoe 10,000 horses a year. Last year Bill's son, Ron, shod one horse.
Bill, who passed away last fall at the age of 91, spent 66 years working as a commercial blacksmith. Right up until his death, he had a forge on his land in Torbay and insisted that his son, Ron, keep him abreast of all the work going on in the workshop on Lime Street.
With his father gone, Ron is proud to carry on the family tradition and has no plans to retire.
"I'll be at it till the day I die," he says.