A Big Fork blacksmith’s cultural imperative to preserve his craft.


Inorthern Montana’s lake country just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Big Fork, a room nearly the size of a football field is adorned with countless metal creations scattered as far as the eye can see. But in this space, a blacksmith’s workshop, these various one-of-a-kind creations belong, like an island of misfit toys framed within a vast, mechanized landscape.

Lining the walls are 10 forges. In between these faces of fire is a middle row of worktables, guillotines and large silos of tools—each containing hundreds of wrenches, anvils and clamps pieced in. Hammer hitting anvil creates a rhythm like a ticking clock in a place that otherwise seems outside of time’s grasp.

Amongst this organized chaos is Jeffrey Funk, 68, moving expertly between the firing forge and the guillotine to poke a hole in what looks like an axe.

“It’s axe day,” his wife, Betsy, 64, tells me as we enter the workshop— confirming my untrained assumption. “He is taking a break from his bigger projects.”

As a Montana blacksmith and proprietor of the only blacksmithing school in the West, Funk is preserving a cultural and iconic craft swing by labored swing. In 2019, Funk founded the New Agrarian school out of his workshop to help see metal work into the future. Now in its sixth year, Funk’s unique approach to passing on the trade includes a philosophy to help it become what he calls a “regenerative” practice. The cultural imperative of preserving blacksmithing underscores Funk’s life work, but the satisfaction of creating something by hand is the real thing he hopes to pass onto his students.

Forging Funk

Funk has come a long way from small- town Delaware where he grew up, but some of that history has remained with him. Funk’s father was an architect, and with an ability to fix anything and bring structures into existence, he was a jack of all trades. This capacity to visualize and materialize rubbed off on his son Jeffrey. Funk’s first job at age 14 was working at a natural history exhibition that made prototype inventions and architecture models; he says he felt like “a kid in a candy store.” With a belief that no idea was too big to bring to life paired with his love of making things with his hands, his fate may have been sealed. In 1973, Funk went to Ohio for trade school to officially become a blacksmith, learning how to forge and use an anvil.

In 1976, Funk moved to Big Fork, a town adjacent to Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, where he began establishing himself as a metal-working professional. He started his career in a rustic teepee. No running water, no electricity—just a man and a fire. From these humble beginnings, Funk built his legacy out of a single forge, first crafting all his own tools, then, forging his iron empire over the course of 40 years.

Funk’s wife, Betsy, embodies a spark that puts his forges to shame. A passionate teacher who has fought a broken education system her whole life, Betsy has molded just about as many lives as her husband has molded creations. She describes her and Funk’s relationship as a sort of “Yin and Yang symbiosis.” This is illustrated quite visually as Betsy, a florist, has a garden full of flowers of every color, shape, and size, poetically juxtaposed beside Funk’s workshop of metal masterpieces.

When Betsy goes to work in the garden, she carries a leather toolbelt just like her husband, but with pruning shears and trowels poking out the pockets rather than tongs and chisels. Although the materials they work with couldn’t be further from one another, the Funks are both drawn to mediums that bring ideas into reality—preserving the dissipating practices of hands-on work through the physical artifacts
they manifest.

Betsy describes her husband as a savant, pointing to the pages and pages of mathematical equations, sketches and full-scale drawings that litter his so-called desk as evidence.

“I don’t understand how he comes up with the things he does,” she says. “What’s more impressive is that he can make these things he comes up with out of thin air. It’s like he is some kind of wizard.”

Chiseling Out a 21st Century Blacksmith

Just as the wizard himself was getting started in the trade, the Golden Age of Capitalism had struck blacksmithing into what Funk describes as a “catatonic state.” Credit lines emerged and America bought up items gluttonously from door- to-door salesmen, TV ads and glossy magazine pictures. Rather than letting circumstance take the wind out of his sails, Funk did everything within his power to specialize in skills that couldn’t be mimicked by machine.

“I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with machines,” Funk says. “As somebody in the industry, I strongly believe that blacksmithing died as a craft thanks to manufacturing. But, you know, they’re part of the necessity of modern life, and so I learned to work with them.”

In the ’70s Funk joined ABANA, the Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America and started getting involved with the national blacksmithing community by regularly going to conferences. Come the ’80s, Funk says that all blacksmithing was done using coal. This made him increasingly aware of the craft’s ecological impact and he started to visit coal mines, mostly in Canada, where he could learn more about the fuel he was using.

“Iron is right on the cusp between the devil and enlightenment, in a way,” Funk says. “It’s such an incredible creative material, but we don’t get it without mining.”

According to Funk, for most of the history of metalwork, charcoal was the primary fuel. It was both the traditional fuel for blacksmithing and industrial manufacturing until around the 1800s in the U.S. Although charcoal isn’t wholly sustainable, small-scale charcoal can be, he says. This forged Funk’s pathos for finding ways to leave blacksmithing more environmentally conscious than he found it. In his workshop, this has manifested in the form of seven forges that run on charcoal and propane rather than coal; threshers, presses and guillotines powered by bicycles; air pressure powered hammers; and dry compost toilets to boot. All creations that—you guessed it—Funk made by hand.

While the way Funk practices blacksmithing today is novel, his profession as a blacksmith itself is also unique. Though blacksmithing did undergo somewhat of a revival in the ’70s, leaning into the artisanal approach, some estimations report that of around 10,000 blacksmiths in the U.S. today, only 10 percent are working professionally.

“It’s a very tricky place to be a craftsman in America today. It used to be that every town had a blacksmith because they needed it. It had practical value,” Funk says. “But in the wake of the industrial revolution, the trade needed to adapt.”

For those interested in getting into the trade, Funk says that a professional self- employed blacksmith can make a salary of anywhere between $75k to $150k. A hired helper, on the other hand, would be looking at something between $20-35 per hour.

Funk recommends that those in blacksmithing keep to forging work and maintain a low cost of living. Most importantly, he says, is to understand the value of making a name for yourself through dedication — with time comes experience, and with experience comes the ability to further self-sustain.

“Human nature, feelings, and desires are not changing at the rate at which technology is integrating itself,” Funk said. “I think that to feel full as human beings, we need to be more tuned into the relationship between our body and our work. And, well, blacksmithing is a very physical craft.”

A Legacy of Preservation

Anna Koplik, 30, is one of the many young blacksmiths in the trade that Funk’s unique stamp has left a lasting impression on. While at a conference two years ago, Koplik attended a presentation by Funk and ended up in his demo as the striker, or the person who swings the hammer. An enthralled Koplik stayed by his side for the remainder of the weekend.

“I think that he’s going to be a very important part in keeping blacksmithing alive, both in the trade and art form,” Koplik says. “The way he’s modernized blacksmithing in his own way is really cool to see.”

Koplik visited Funk in Montana shortly after meeting him, taking the chance to learn from a pillar in the community and utilize a well-equipped workshop. This past winter, she came back to do an official six-week apprenticeship in the hopes of growing in her propriety in the re-emerging trade.

According to Funk, commitment to the craft and self-reliance are foundational principles in “smithing” and are the core principles of The New Agrarian School. Funk says he started the school because he believes that preserving traditional crafts is a cultural imperative—especially in the face of today’s screen-focused world. In fact, Funk asserts “blacksmithing is the antithesis of screens.”

“One day I realized, I think my time would be better spent sharing,” Funk says. “Economically, that might not have been the best decision. But spiritually, it was.”

Coming into its sixth year, the school hosts an average of 40-50 students every summer, with each session typically offering seven classes. Funk’s instruction prioritizes functionality, with classes teaching the craft of blacksmithing tools, smelting iron from ore, American axes, garden and kitchen tools, and chefs’ knives.

The school, like Funk, is devoted to approaching blacksmithing through its foundational elements— community, energy, material, and environment. The name New Agrarian is a nod to its pursuit toward regenerative utility, an education to help craft the tools needed for individuals to grow their own food and reconnect with the landscape. According to Koplik, who went to craft school in New Jersey at a place called Peters Valley, reputational hubs for blacksmithing like Funk’s are extremely important. Today, the trade is based on a lot of word-of-mouth networking and community is essential.

The curriculum for the New Agrarian School is grounded by three guiding rules:

  • They don’t make weapons, a philosophy dovetailed with non-violence.
  • They commit to living as minimally as possible.
  • They appreciate and accept others, promoting inclusiveness and honoring human relationships.

On Funk’s island of creation, where flowers bloom alongside striking anvils and blazing forges, a legacy of preservation is illuminated. Whether it’s a garden tool for his wife, or a space to perpetuate an endangered craft, Funk continues to prove humans’ capacities to create real things from a mind’s eye.

Born in Idaho with a bad case of wanderlust, Emily Senkosky is a writer, photographer and editor who is inspired by new surroundings. After making a life for herself in Medellin, Colombia, she came back to the Western U.S. to refine her writing for environmental topics and now is a graduate student in the University of Montana natural resource journalism program.