Iron artifact finds a place in school lobby

The coffee table in the lobby at Rodgers Forge Elementary boasts a built-in conversation piece, one deeply rooted in the history of the school and its surrounding community.

The glass and steel table, built by a Rodgers Forge alumnus who is a blacksmith, surrounds a 200-year-old ironwork from the long gone forge that lent its name to the Baltimore County neighborhood and school.

"This piece speaks to the strength of this community and its school," said Susan Deise, Rodgers Forge principal. "We want people to stop, look and marvel. A school spirit comes with this piece and it surely captures our 'Forge Ahead' motto."

It also meshes well with this year's back-to-school theme — "Everything old is new again," she said.

When Deise arrived at the school 10 years ago, she decided that the odd iron object serving as a doorstop warranted research into its origins. She stored it in a closet until she could find time for further study. Deirdre Barone, a parent volunteer with a passion for American history, took over from there.

"I knew it was old and might have been from the forge," Barone said. "I wanted a permanent home for it. Twice it was almost thrown out."

Barone, whose three children have attended the school, pored over old newspaper clippings. She contacted the Maryland Historical Society, which dated the piece to the 1800s but had no room for it among its collection.

The artifact came from a blacksmith shop founded in the early 1800s by George Rodgers, an Irish immigrant. His business at York Road and Stevenson Lane thrived as the commercial center of south Towson. The forge specialized in "shoeing only the finest riding and carriage horses," according to a 1957 article in the Sunday Sun Magazine.

Rodgers probably used the ironwork, known as a tuyere or air gate or nozzle, in his fire pit. The tool would force air through coals to create extreme heat.

The forge closed with the advent of the automobile, but the landmark building survived as a post office, then a candy store and finally a tire shop, until it was razed in 1947. An art professor at what is now Towson University retrieved the cone-shaped piece, which weighs about 350 pounds, from the rubble, along with hand-cut nails, horseshoes and a door latch. Nine years later, she donated the air gate and other pieces to the elementary school.

Barone had pushed for a permanent display at the school, unsure what that might be.

"I wanted something everyone could see and touch," she said.

Judy Slaysman, a school crossing guard, suggested contacting her son at his blacksmith shop in Maryland Line.

"As a kid, I remember vividly staring at this piece in the library and thinking it was a cannon," said her son, Randy Slaysman, who is an alumnus. "At the time, I didn't care anything about it."

But indifference later blossomed into curiosity and creativity. He wrote a college research paper about the forge and the piece that survived it. And, about 30 years after he left elementary school, Slaysman would be instrumental in saving the object.

The school gave Slaysman "free rein" on the design and paid for materials, he said. He donated his time.

"I immediately thought furniture, maybe a shadow box to display it," he said.

He designed and built a 3-by-4-foot table with graceful steel cabriole legs and a sturdy, but simple steel frame, waxed to an antique patina. The artifact sits in the center of the glass, bolted securely to the frame.

"It is engineered to take the weight and won't wobble," Slaysman said.

Deise finally has found a spot for the old iron air gate. Surrounded by comfortable leather seating and covered in shatterproof glass, it is the centerpiece in the school lobby, within easy sight and reach of curious students.

"Kids can touch it and not hurt it," said Barone. "What better place than here for youthful, open minds to see and learn? This is the best teachable place for it.

"This is both a happy ending and a new beginning for this artifact."

An earlier caption misstated the timeframe of the forge. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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