By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Erik Woll seems to love playing with fire. By day he serves as chef and co-manager at Herbst Landing & Lighthouse Lounge in Canton, Illinois. On weekends, you’ll find him working the anvil and forge of the Rasmussen Museum and Blacksmith Shop in Lewistown. Both trades employ fire and creativity to transform simple ingredients into a beautiful result that is more than the sum of its parts.
A native of Lewistown, Erik is very much a product of his family’s influence. His great-grandparents were in the restaurant business in Lewistown and his grandmother loved cooking there. His family’s legacy helped him learn to appreciate how a well prepared meal can create a memorable experience for a diner. His great-grandfather was also a hobbyist blacksmith and one of the founders of the Lewistown Society for Historical Preservation. The Society purchased the blacksmith shop from the Rasmussen family in 1969.
Erik began working in restaurants as a teenager, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up to sous chef. He left the restaurant business for a few years for the pay and stability of factory work, but found he missed cooking too much. “I’m really good on the line,” he said. “I don’t know how it happens, it just happens. I can do a lot of things at once.”
Two years ago, Erik and his wife Ashton took over the historic blacksmith shop and museum where Ashton now serves as the museum’s curator. Both describe themselves as “history nerds,” so it’s a perfect fit. In fact, they got married at the Dickson Mounds Museum. Since taking over the shop, most of their free time has been dedicated to cleaning and restoring the shop and tools.
Then, just a week before the annual Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive they found themselves without a blacksmith for the shop. Erik stepped in and began drawing on his past experiences. Having been around the shop as a child and more recently as a restorer, he was familiar with the tools and their uses. He also relied on a few local blacksmith friends who have been mentoring him.
Visiting the blacksmith shop is like stepping back in time. The building was built in the 1830’s, and operated as a blacksmith shop from the 1890’s until 1969 when it was purchased by the historical society. The shop still has its original coal forge and many of the original tools. “As old as it is, it’s never caught fire,” Ashton explained. “We’re lucky to have this because most blacksmith shops burn down.”
Erik has immersed himself in learning about the trade. “I love learning, creating and watching the sparks fly,” he said. “I’m a giant history nerd. It’s fantastic because I get to do things that are historic. I’m not making froes or shoeing horses, but it’s still an art form that only a few people do. And, it’s an ancient art form – since the Bronze Age.”
YouTube has become Erik’s favorite classroom. “It’s a godsend,” he said. “We’ve spent hours watching videos online. It’s like having a demonstrator here, but we don’t have to pay them.”
Besides learning about blacksmithing, Erik loves doing demonstrations. “Blacksmithing is a lot like cooking. I really enjoy seeing what I can make, and I love sharing it with people. When somebody cuts into a steak and it’s perfect, it creates an experience for them and it makes me really happy.”
Erik and Ashton both agree that “the history is the best part. It’s an escape from our 9 to 5 jobs. It’s a chance to explore the history that’s associated with this town and this shop, and to teach people about it.”
The museum and blacksmith shop are open from June through October on Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM as well as during special events. Tours can be scheduled by appointment at any time during the year. You can find more information on the web at the Fulton County Tourism website as well as on their Facebook page. For information or to schedule a visit, contact Ashton Woll at explore.Lewistown.firstname.lastname@example.org.