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January 26, 2013

From shoes and soot to stitches, traditional vocations thrive

Local practitioners talk about their careers

By Shirley O'Shea
The Daily Star

---- — Many ancient trades are still practiced today. Humans have tilled the soil and raised animals for thousands of years. But the early farmers of Mesopotamia most likely would be awestruck by the system of agribusiness, with its genetically modified crops and computerized combine harvesters, which feeds hundreds of millions of people in our time. 

Likewise, there are millions of folks who work in such long-lived professions as cleaning lady, cook, barber, doctor and builder, almost all of whom practice their professions with the benefit of immense developments in technology, knowledge and marketing methods.

But there are those whose occupations are old, traditional and in many ways unchanged from how they were practiced centuries ago. Such workers are few in number, and they all have their own compelling reasons why they do the work they do. 

Mark Tessier, 42, is a blacksmith farrier and owner of Multi-Equine Farrier Service in Sharon Springs, where he was raised.

A blacksmith farrier trims horses’ hooves, fashions horseshoes and shoes horses.

Acccording to Tessier, a farrier’s mission is to “make (a horse’s) movement as fluid and comfortable as possible.” 

“A wise farrier will attempt to promote healthy foot flight (the arc of a horse’s feet up from the ground and back again) without the use of a shoe,” Tessier said. “My job is to make your horse happy so he can do his job for you.”

Tessier worked for 17 years as a self-employed contractor, doing home restorations, the last of which was his work on the famous Beekman House.

“I liked being allowed to experience living history and artistic craft,” he said.

But when a textile mill in Schoharie County relocated operations to Mexico, Tessier said he found himself overwhelmed by competition in the form of newly unemployed men seeking work as handymen and carpenters. “I had to compete with cheaper labor,” he said.

Tessier knew he had to find a new profession. But even more, he said, he wanted to “totally change my life.”

For Tessier, deciding to become a blacksmith farrier was a natural transition. He owned one horse, and had become enthralled with horses as a young boy, when his older sister worked summers at a dude ranch and had taken him trail riding. According to Tessier, his own farrier indicated that he was retiring, and told Tessier that he saw a need for farriers and blacksmiths. 

Tessier enrolled in a horse breaking and training school in Oklahoma, and then attended Montana State University for blacksmithing and farrier education. He also studied horse anatomy and foot flight biomechanics to learn how to most effectively correct faults in a horse’s gait. 

Tessier said his professor at Montana State told students, “To be a farrier, you need the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Samson, and the patience of Job.”

“It’s absolutely true,” Tessier said, laughing.

Tessier said that, while out West, he encountered the “Cowboy Code of Ethics,” which led to a kind of spiritual renewal within himself. According to Tessier, the cowboy code of ethics provides the “common working man” with a set of guidelines for living “with integrity and character.” 

Following the cowboy code requires that a farrier or any other worker “present to the client a good attitude about what you’re doing and (give) more than a fair day’s work,” Tessier said. “I want to give that client more than they expect. I give them the best I’m capable of giving.”

Tessier predicts his career as a blacksmith farrier will most likely last only a few more years. “It’s demanding physically,” he said. An average length farrier career is 12½ years, he said. Tessier has endured 14 pairs of broken ribs, multiple concussions, hernias and other broken bones in his work with horses.

“I would bet that no less than 90 percent of those incidents (would have been avoided) if owners allowed farriers to do their job,” Tessier said.

Nevertheless, Tessier continues to trim and shoe horses because of the satisfaction he gains from helping these large, powerful and beneficial animals stay healthy. “I get to see horses that are anything from mildly sore to nearly crippled. When I leave, (a suffering) horse has a visible improvement. To give that kind of care with instant results is a real boost for my day.”

It was necessity as well as passion that led Cathy Coan, sole proprietor of Mountainway Dress and Decorator in Oneonta, to take up dressmaking in high school.

“My clothing allowance wasn’t big enough, so I started dressmaking for myself,” Coan said. “Dressmaking is my first love.”

Coan began to study sewing in middle school, but she credits her mother with being her “first influence” in sewing.

“My mother made a lot of our clothes. I saw what could be done,” Coan said. Her mother also sewed slipcovers for furniture and made other home décor items as well. “She taught and inspired me,” Coan said.

As she and her husband raised their children in Ridgewood, N.J., Coan took in sewing to supplement the family income while her husband pursued studies in library science. They moved to Maryland, where Coan “kept it going,” and when the family moved to Oneonta, Coan decided to “establish a formal business” in 1998.

“Word of mouth is mainly how it’s grown,” Coan said.

When the Coans built their home in Oneonta, they included a sun-filled sewing studio, in which Coan does bridal gown alterations, as well as home décor work such as slipcovers, curtains and valances. As for dressmaking, Coan said, “There isn’t that much call for it because it costs too much money.” 

The five or six hours necessary to make a dress, Coan said, leads to bill of around $100. 

“People can buy off the rack for $20,” Coan said. “Sometimes on a bridal dress, people are willing to do it.”

Coan said that her favorite projects are saving “somebody’s old, ripped-up, faded garment. They’re so happy and I’m so happy.”

She said she enjoys making garments to sell at The Artisans’ Guild in Oneonta. “That’s way fun, too,” she said. “I just love to play with fabric and dressmaking.”

Coan said that she encounters few people interested in learning dressmaking. “I’ve had a couple students,” she said. “It’s a very rare individual, though,” who wants to learn to be a seamstress, she said.

In Palatine Bridge, Steve Gage, the original owner and operator of Top Hat Chimney Sweeps, has cleaned chimneys and installed wood stoves for 33 years. 

“Back in 1979 I had two friends in the stove business. They sold a lot of stoves and said there was a need for cleaners,” Gage said. “Wood-burning stoves were coming back because oil prices were rising.” 

Chimney cleaning is necessary “to remove the danger of chimney fires” caused by the by-products of wood burning, such as creosote, Gage said. 

Although he was working as a mason at the time, Gage decided to give chimney cleaning a try as well.   

“I wanted to be self-employed,” Gage said. “It worked out much better than I expected.”

Gage learned the trade by working with a more experienced sweep. Then, Gage became part of the National Chimney Sweep Guild for skill-update seminars and bi-annual testing for certification. 

Gage worked on his own for 20 years, and then offered full partnerships to his two sons-in-law, Caleb Taylor and Matt Moisio

Gage said that over the decades the tools sweeps use have improved, but are essentially the same kind — fiberglass rods and brushes, and vacuum cleaners. Although cleaning a chimney from the bottom up is preferred for safety reasons, “sometimes you can’t get away from climbing up roofs,” he said.

Business has been brisk for Gage and his partners, he said.

“When there’s a need to save, people tend to burn wood even more seriously,” Gage said. “It is not a luxury. Harder times bring more people to wood burning.”

In fact, Gage expects his business to grow. “If you do a good job, you retain customers and bring on new customers,” he said.

People enjoy the atmosphere created by a wood-burning stove, he said.

“If you help them do it safely,” Gage said, “you can keep a customer for life.”