Robert M. Heath
Bob was raised in Canton, Mississippi where he was born in 1941. Canton is a small central Mississippi town of about ten thousand residents, located about twenty-five miles north of the state capitol city of Jackson. The town is based on business that is largely associated with agriculture. During the 1940’s and fifties most of the agriculture of cotton and corn dominated the rural farms and communities in the area. The craft of blacksmithing back then was one that farmers used to keep their farm wagons and tools, such as plows and tractors in repair.
Although Bob lived in town, he spent many days on a farm his father owned or at the old cotton gin, that played an integral part in preparing the cotton for market. Many of the rural farmers still used mules for working the land and operating logging operations during the off season when cotton had been harvested. The result was that most people involved in agriculture were familiar with anvils, forges, blacksmith vises, blacksmith tongs, hammers and the many other tools that were needed to either sharpen plow points, make repairs, or other jobs that needed to be done.
Bob’s father taught him blacksmithing shop work skills that were needed for the operations. When he was eleven years old, his father taught him to forge weld iron and steel on the old farm anvil after getting the metal hot in the old farm forge that had a fire pot made with dried clay mixed with sand. The use of flux on a weld was not known until a much older great uncle mentioned the use of fine creek sand mixed with salt served as a welding flux that greatly improved the welding process.
A few years after this initial start in shop work the real source of the knowledge of blacksmithing emerged when Bob’s father told him about Jim Wales, a three-hundred-pound black man who stood about six foot three inches tall and who had taught all of the men in the Heath family of farmers how to work at a blacksmith forge. Old Jim had been hired in about 1910 to keep all of the mules in shape for the share croppers, repair not only plows but later a fleet of four Fordson Tractors of the mid 1920’s era. There was a sixty horse power Case steam tractor for Jim to look after, several hit and miss stationary engines, a couple of steam powered saw mills, and the steam engine that ran the cotton gin and grist mill. Back then this kind of farm equipment required a sure knowledge of pouring babbit lined oil bearings for all kinds of shafting and even bearings for automobile and tractor engines that required a special skill. But Jim Wales was a true master blacksmith who knew how to forge weld a broken T-Model axle as good as new or it was told, even mend a broken clock spring with a light touch on the hot spring steel to make the repair. He could do it all. He was the one who taught Bob Heath’s grandfather, all three of his great Uncles, his father and one of his uncles to work iron. None of them were at the master blacksmith level but they could hold their own in most of the work in the shop that needed to be done. By age fifteen Bob Heath could do some of that shop work but really didn’t kick off in the craft until the 1970’s when he began to spend his Saturdays at the old farm anvil in Canton.
During the intervening years after all of the old folks died Bob graduated from high school, went off to study civil engineering at Mississippi State University, and by 1965 was working in Huntsville, Alabama in the space industry as a space suit guinea pig at the Marshal Space Flight Center located at the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville. He said “We did a lot of human engineering experiments associated with some of the astronauts assigned to the actual Apollo Moon Landing program. That is quite a jump from a very primitive blacksmith shop in rural Mississippi right into the lion’s mouth of the very fast moving space program that was led by Dr. Werner von Braun who had developed the idea of the Saturn V rocket to make the Moon landing. Bob says that the crew he worked on in the lab built their own equipment that was used to pressurize the space suits tested and that he even hammered out the first prototype tools (a small shovel and a rock grabber) that were later refined into much lighter devices actually used on the Moon to pick up rock samples off of the lunar surface. Bob says that it was the most interesting job he ever had but did not last after the Apollo program wound down three years later.
Bob moved back to Jackson, Mississippi near the farm in 1968 and took a job with the Mississippi Highway Department designing bridges and bridge foundations. Later there was work there in the acquisition of highway right of way that required a knowledge of surveying and highway construction. It was about that time that every Saturday was spent in Canton in the shop that was built behind his Mother’s house. Later in 1976 he married a Jackson girl, Leah Chambers. They had three daughters and one son. In 1979 Bob joined ABANA (The Artist Blacksmith’s Association of North America) that he learned about from Jim Wallace who came from Memphis to teach a very good class on blacksmithing. In 1984 a blacksmithing club was organized based on the Agricultural and Forestry Museum in Jackson, which later evolved into the Mississippi Forge Council through Grady Holly’s efforts in organizing a Mississippi chapter of the over-all ABANA organization. There are over a hundred members now. Many of the members frequently attend blacksmithing events in the Birmingham, Alabama area and in other states as far away as Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
In 1990 the Mississippi Forge Council had a conference at Grady Holly’s shop in Vicksburg, Mississippi that featured Bob Patrick as the lead demonstrator. He showed Bob and the other conference attendees how to forge gun barrels using the archaic craft methods that were used for flintlock rifles. Three different methods of barrel forging were taught. They learned that forging gun barrels was within the skill range of many of the members present at the conference. In 1991 Walter Mabry and Bob Heath forged a short pistol length barrel and test fired it to prove that the forging was sound. In 2006, after Heath retired from regular work at the Mississippi Highway Department, there was time to learn more about gun making. By 2009 enough trips had been made up to the Williamsburg, Virginia gun smithing shop and to the Dixon Gun Maker’s Fair at Kempton, Pa. to forge the deep hole gun bore drilling bits, tempering of gun springs, straightening barrels and rifling to forge and fabricate several rifles and pistols. Two rifling machines were constructed for use on these projects. The pursuit of gun making has been followed up to this time, with one lone rifle that is being worked on now in Canton, Mississippi.