Unearthing the ways of long-gone coppersmiths

By Lynn R. Parks

Most people don’t know that colonial-era soldiers made dice out of old musket balls. That in the 17th century, coins could be cut in half, in quarters, in eighths even, to give a merchant exact change. Or that Lorenzo de Medici of Florence designed the first board game. “It is all the little nuances that no one knows, or that most people don’t know, that make history interesting,” said Peter Goebel, Bridgeville, a self-taught historian and coppersmith. “Things like that give a familiarity to history and put real people in history.” Goebel, 58, who opened his metal works store about two years ago, has expanded the business to include an interactive museum about colonial life. The small room in his shop, which opened to the public last month and which he expects to be completed by fall, represents a one-room cabin, about 10 feet by 10 feet. When finished, it will be sparsely furnished, as cabins were in the 17th century, with a rope bed, a trundle bed, a table and chairs. The cabin’s walls are already lined with objects that would have been found in an early-American cabin or tavern. Many of those items were made by Goebel himself, who forges copper objects such as pots and other containers in the same way they were made 400 years ago. Goebel has devoted the last 17 years to learning the ways of coppersmiths, who shared the secrets of their trade only with guild members. After industrialization, coppersmithing died out and with it, its secrets. Because Goebel makes authentic reproductions, using only the tools that coppersmiths used, his work is in demand by museums. He has made pieces for Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s 17th-century home in Morrisville, Pa., historic Jamestown and Yorktown, Va., Old Fort Niagara near Niagara Falls, Sutter’s Fort in California and Fort St. Jean Baptiste in Louisiana. He does pieces for people who reenact battles from the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars — weskit inkwells: two quills and a corked ink bottle, fitted into a tin carrying case that tucks into a vest pocket. Ale shoes, shoe-shaped copper containers, the toes of which were pushed into fires to warm the ale that was in the upper part. Pots. Lanterns. His pieces have also been used in movies and television shows. Kermit carried one of his lanterns in “Muppet Treasure Island.” Goebel started making authentic pre-Revolutionary War pieces soon after he and his wife Debra began participating in reenactments. His hobby turned into a job in 1991 when he was working as a metal lab foreman for the Department of Energy in Upton, N.Y., and was injured. “After I was hurt, I was lying on the floor one day and Debra looked down at me and said, ‘What are we going to do for a living?’ We decided to do something in re-enacting and cookware was the thing. Everybody was looking for it.” His training began in museums, where he examined authentic pieces from American’s Colonial period, and with books. But mere examination did not give him the information he needed. He learned much of what he knows through trial and error. “A lot of pieces I made at first wouldn’t fit together, or wouldn’t solder correctly,” he said. “We lined those pieces up on the basement floor and stomped on them.” Goebel first set up shop in Greenwood, Va. He and Debra came to Bridgeville three years ago, with their five children. Since then, they have had a sixth child, Elijah, who is one month old. In addition to his copper, tin and brass pieces, Goebel sells colonial-era glass pieces, wooden items and baskets. Sometimes his work turns whimsical and he turns out copper pots “blooming” with copper leaves and plants. Other times he depends on the whimsy of those who came before him, and recreates the silhouette of a plumed bird, species unknown, the pattern for which he found in a 17th-century piece. Either way, he loves the things he makes, and the processes that go into them. “Every piece has a use, and learning what it is is what makes history fun,” he said. “Understanding the tools they used gives us an appreciation of everyone who lived before us. They were much the same as we are, just living with a different technology.”

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