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More Than Just A Blacksmith

originally published June 2012 in Georgia Mountain Laurel

This photo, given to Foxfire just as this short article was being prepared,
shows Will Zoellner astride a horse during World War I. He served the
U.S. Army as a farrier and instructor before shipping over to Germany,
where he cared for horses and drove supply wagons in active combat
areas. During his interviews with Foxfire students, Will mentions
taking his own injuries from shrapnel, too, as well as encountering
mustard gas and recovering from its long-lasting effects.
Photo courtesy of Earl Zoellner and Sherry Lambert.

From student author Cam Bond's introduction: "The story of Will Zoellner reveals a man of the mountains, a son of German immigrants who is notorious among local folk for his epic hunting tales and respected in his profession as a blacksmith."

So begins the tale of Will Zoellner, a central figure in the 1975 release Foxfire 5, the fifth of twelve volumes grown from the writings of Rabun County, Georgia, students who have been interviewing their elder generations for the pages of The Foxfire Magazine since 1966. While well-known for his blacksmithing trade (many of his tools are now part of the Foxfire Museum's blacksmith shop), Will's life covers a variety of experiences beyond the anvil and forge. Following youthful tales of coon hunting trips that end with fresh bear meat, accidentally killing a neighbor's cow, and catching lots of fish, Will talked with Foxfire students about his entrance into the U.S. Army during World War I and his time in Germany transporting supplies to the front lines using horses and wagons. Will had worked in blacksmith's shops since the age of six, and he noted, "I went right straight over [to Germany] because they needed a horse shoer and I was one of the best [the Army had found]. There was a lot of mean horses up there. I didn't pay no attention. I'd shoe 'em all—didn't make no difference how mean they were. "After shoeing horses for years and working them in the mountains his whole life, Will was equally familiar with iron and horses, so he had the experience and skill to handle even the trickiest situations with horses, like this one:

I took a piece of shrapnel out of a big water-cart horse—he weighed twenty-six hundred pounds. His cart carried over a thousand gallons of water. They used him on the battlefield, and a shrapnel [shell] busted and a piece of steel as big as my hand flew out and hit him over the hip bone and buried up in there. There he was, standing in the barn, by gosh, for two weeks. They didn't know there was anything in [the wound].

A man came over to where I was and asked, "Are you busy today?"

I said, "I'm always busy."

"The captain told me you could go over to the barn and look at a horse for me. He looks like he's going to die. I don't know what to do with him," he says.

"You ought to have went in there [the wound]. If he can't walk, open that cut and see if there's a piece [of shrapnel] in there, ..."

"Can you get it out?" he said.

"Well, of course I can get it out," I said. "He'll die anyway if we don't."

We went over there, laid that great big old horse down. Just doubled his legs and rolled him over on the straw. He never kicked, he was sick as he could be. I took my knife and cut in there, and brother, there come a quart of yellow corruption out. Had my big pot of water, four gallons, sterilized. I poured it all over and in that cut.

Then I reached down in there and there was a piece of old cast iron six or seven inches deep in the meat in his ham. I pulled it out and washed that hole out and sewed it up from the top down, and left a drain hole—put a little piece of rubber in the bottom of it, cut it off pretty short. Went back the next mornin', put some liniment all over it, and he was using the leg. There wasn't no bones broke, but this piece [of shrapnel had been] in under his hipbone joint. He was lookin' around, and I seen he was coming out of it. I said, "There's no bones broke, just inflammation struck him." In three weeks, by God, he was pulling the water cart again. Never limped, no scar, nothin'.

Along with stories of Will and his wife, Magaline, Foxfire 5 features long sections on ironmaking and blacksmithing, gunmaking, bear hunting, and more. For information on this book, the rest of the series, or other Foxfire programs, visit or call 706-746-5828. You can also stop by the Foxfire Museum at 98 Foxfire Lane, off of Cross Street, in Mountain City, GA, for a first-hand look at the work beyond the printed page accomplished by Rabun students over the program's 45+ years.

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