Prairie Valentine from Empire Mine
February 20, 2013
While Marilyn Monroe maintained "diamonds are a girl's best friend," a pioneer woman would have been delighted to get hitched with a "prairie-diamond ring."
Until recently, I'd never heard the term before. However, thanks to Empire Mine blacksmith Bill Blount, now I know what it is, how it's made and why it remains a robust symbol of romance on the prairie.
Wearing his traditional leather apron, Bill welcomed me to the old blacksmith shop. For the last six years, he's been a volunteer "smithy," greeting visitors from all over the world — and telling them about the prairie-diamond ring.
"Now, you have to remember," he explained, "the blacksmith was a pivotal part of a wagon train. Folks relied on him to fix their wagon wheels and to keep their horses and mules well shod and sound. His skills could make the difference between progress and peril, and everyone relied on him — especially when romance bloomed. It was the blacksmith who would make the rings and perform the wedding."
“(E)veryone relied on (the blacksmith)
— especially when romance bloomed. It was the blacksmith who would make the rings and perform the wedding.”
— Empire Mine blacksmith Bill Blount
Bill then opened his hand to show me a selection of rings with large, diamond-shaped projections.
"These rings, made from horseshoe nails, doubled as engagement and wedding rings," he said. "Look closer, and you'll see that the head of the nail looks like a large diamond."
Not only did the blacksmith make the rings, but he also conducted the wedding, using his anvil for an altar.
"We still make these rings here in the shop," he explained, along with another important part of the courtship — the courting candle.
Its spiral, wrought-iron holder was also crafted by the blacksmith. The girl's father used the courting candle to determine just how much time the couple could spend together.
If he felt the young man was a prosperous, promising fellow, he'd raise the candle to burn longer. If the suitor were a man dad doubted, the candle would be lowered, reducing their designated time together.
Either way, the deal was when the candle burned out, the young man had to leave.
Both the rings and the courting candles are still made at Empire Mine's historic blacksmith shop. A visit might spark a touch of nostalgia, especially around Valentine's Day.
"Not too long ago, one young man proposed to his girlfriend here, complete with our prairie diamond rings," he recalled.
Bill (who also volunteers at Hospitality House) and the other volunteer smithies are always happy to leave their fires and anvils and share colorful tales from the past.
"Bringing the blacksmith's history to life is a compelling experience," he added. "And learning a new skill is something I thoroughly enjoy, especially now that I'm retired."
Anyone interested in volunteering at Empire Mine State Historic Park may call 530-273-8522 or visit http://www.parks.ca.gov or http://www.empiremine.org. This year's annual training is scheduled to begin with an orientation 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 9.
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