Transformation at the train station

Janie Grela at Johnstown's train station

Tools, hardware, home goods, weapons -  blacksmithing may not be something one thinks of every day, but it no doubt impacts our everyday life.

In 1973, a group of 27 blacksmiths got together with a vision and a determination to bring about a resurgence in what they believed was the lost art of blacksmithing. They formed the Artists Blacksmith Association of North America (ABANA) with the mission of “perpetuating the noble art of blacksmithing.”

We focus mainly on education,” says Executive Director Janie Grela, “because we know that if there are not blacksmiths learning, practicing – and if new people are not coming to the art form, then it does not have much of a chance of a future.”

For 48 years, ABANA has been without a permanent place to call home. That changed in 2020 when the ABANA board voted to headquarter the organization in Johnstown, due in large part to the city’s rich history in the steel and iron industry.

It only makes sense that ABANA’s permanent home be in a historical steel town,” Grela says. “Here we can honor that history and educate people, too.”

ABANA’s new headquarters are in Johnstown’s historic train station on Walnut Street. The facility continues to undergo renovations, but the train station will eventually hold a metal arts museum, ABANA’s many archives, plans and drawings and a gift shop that will include original metal art.

The train station is a gateway to Johnstown,” says Grela. “If you think of all the comings and goings, how many soldiers were sent to war from the station, and how many immigrants came to the area looking for jobs, it is really humbling. Now ABANA gets to be part of that history and bring new people to our city.”

The ABANA organization connects blacksmiths with opportunities and supports those wanting to learn or enhance their blacksmithing skills with educational scholarships and grants. Members follow a structured, four-level national curriculum with classes, taught both in-person and virtually, all over the country.

The organization acts as a historian: preserving valuable blacksmithing artifacts, plans and works of art. Two publications produced by the organization, Anvil’s Ring and The Hammer’s Blow, provide members with quarterly updates on the blacksmithing world and “how to” articles.

Grela is a Johnstown native, so the city is not new to her, but it certainly is new to many of her organization’s over 3,200 members. Many of those members will get to see their new headquarters at the Iron to Arts Festival to be held Oct. 14-16 at PGN Park.

This Iron to Arts Festival is the first of its kind for ABANA,” says Grela. “We have a national conference every two years, but this is a festival. It will come to Johns-town every other year.”

ABANA anticipates a crowd of 3,000 or more for the three-day festival.

The first two days will focus on intensive demonstrations, with opportunities for registrants to have one-on-one lessons from a master blacksmith.

Black Horse Forge will be at a “Forging for Veterans” tent where past and present service people and first responders can put hammer to metal.

The final day – Saturday, October 16 – will appeal to all audiences with vendors, food, music and special opportunities for youth and veterans to try their hand at blacksmithing.

We already have people registered to come to Johnstown from Canada, Colorado, Arizona, California, Massachusetts and Texas,” says Grela. “This is a point of pride for our membership and we can’t wait to introduce them to Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”

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