Niles man practices coopering, blacksmithing

Published 11:30 am Friday, March 1, 2019

Fred Rogers is not just a name that belongs to the friendly old guy on TV wearing a cardigan. The Fred Rogers from Niles is a craftsman, a blacksmith, a musician and a local creative who is interested in the old way of making tools, household items, and knickknacks. But he doesn’t do it for the money or the recognition. Fred makes things with his hands simply for the joy and the legacy of the task.

Fred and Diane Rogers’ home is filled with knickknacks, furniture, even instruments of Fred’s own design and making. The various items hanging from the walls and racks in the Rogers home are not only the testaments of Fred’s creativity and ability, but also to the festivals, events and memories from the Rogers’ travels and years together.

Right next to the front door of their humble home sits a table with several large, handcrafted utensils Fred forged in his own blacksmith shop.

Hanging in the living room are a couple of leather sporrans Fred made to wear with the rest of his Scottish garb. Piled by the sporrans is the latest collection of Fred’s buckets, butter churns, and piggins from his coopering hobby. Hanging on another wall is a photograph of Friends Good Will, a ship Fred and Diane crewed for a few years, during which time Fred forged hardware such as hinges for various parts of the ship. On a cabinet in the dining room is a collection of a couple dozen ornate pens Fred made for his personal use.

Throughout the house a visitor will notice an unusual number of gourds and items made from gourds. Fred has made everything from Native American flutes, to a dulcimer, to a set of bag pipes, and one resounding chime contraption with a long, skinny spring hanging from its bottom. In the back screen room are gourds drying out for later use.

Fred and Diane’s home is its own museum of crafts and ideas from Fred’s brain and hands. It’s a museum, not a shop, because Fred does not sell his items. Festivals, presentations and historic reenactments are all on Fred’s agenda, but setting up a table with price tags for his crafted items is not part of the deal.

“I haven’t sold anything. I’ve never tried,” Fred said. “I’ve never felt the need to make stuff for sale. I just like to make stuff.”

Fred is an oldtime artist because he does his crafts for the love of the crafts themselves, and also because he is a “method man.” It’s not just the end product that interests Fred, but it’s the process, the learning and the time it takes to do the work.

“I’m more interested in the techniques and process of making these things,” Fred said.

Fred’s specialty is 17th, 18th and 19th Century blacksmithing, and his coopering method belongs to the same time period. Although none of the items made in his forge are made from real wrought iron, they have the black, rustic look of something dug up from a long forgotten pilgrim village. Fred’s buckets, butter churns and piggins are like items found in a 19th Century general store. The best part is they are all useful.

“I was drawn to coopering because it was something different,” Fred said. “I have a knack for it, I enjoy the process and I end up with something incredibly functional.”

Behind the Rogers’ house is a large backyard. On the south end is a 10×10 foot shack where Fred does his personal blacksmithing and coopering. Naturally, the shed is partly of his own making.

But Fred can be seen at work and at play in other places in southwest Michigan as well, whether with the South Shore Concert Band clarinet section, playing bagpipes for a variety of community events or assistant teaching introductory classes at places like Tillers International in Scotts Michigan and Water Street Glassworks in Benton Harbor, the places that equipped Fred to pursue his blacksmithing and coopering interests.

Fred has gone on to share his skills with the next generation of south Michigan’s amateur blacksmiths, coopers, crafters, preservationists and do-it-yourselfers.


Photography by Emily Sobecki