For 44 years in Ashland, Dennis DeBey has been standing, hammer in hand, over his 2,400-degree forge and anvil, creating iron art and fixing the broken stuff of everyday life — wood stoves, gates, rails, statues, candelabras — things that would otherwise end up in the dump in a throwaway society such as ours.
Pounding and shaping a large, beautiful iron arch in his Ashland Forge shop on Tolman Creek Road recently, DeBey, 71, smilingly demonstrates that, while blacksmithing does require some muscle, what’s important is learning how “to make it as easy as you can by using your mind, not your body. Take a long time developing that idea, that craft.”
DeBey has been generous with his rare and exotic skill set, teaching at Ashland High School in past years and holding “open Friday” for teens looking for inspiration, confidence and experience in something that most people consider a guy thing and hard to do.
“I’ve taught three women who have gone on in the work,” says DeBey. “Frankly, women just have more finesse at the anvil. They’re more attentive and less aggressive and they know you don’t have to roughhouse it. You have to think about it.”
The first thing young boys want to make are swords, but DeBey, noting “I am a pacifist,” gently turns them onto making a leaf.
DeBey, a Los Angeles native, came to Ashland in 1969 from Humboldt State College, seeking a master’s degree in Outdoor Education at Southern Oregon College, with a goal of being a naturalist (and, he adds, getting deferments from the draft). He was part of the “back to the land” movement of young seekers of the early ‘70s, he says, and sought the freedom of simple living, close to nature.
In a chance encounter, DeBey met master blacksmith Al Bart here and got mentored for several months, picking up a good foundation for a career, he notes. The work furthered his values of simplicity and kindness to the planet, as he was able to recycle and repurpose so much castoff metal and find antiquated tools with lots of life left in them.
He and his then-wife Diane Marber had a son and, in 1976 (the days of cheap Ashland real estate), bought the northwest corner of Tolman Creek and Siskiyou Boulevard, with four business buildings, for $32,000.
“I’m not a rich person,” he says. “I get by on what’s given to me. Having low requirements is a main part of success. Now, I live in a yurt up by Pilot Rock, surrounded by forest. Driving the back road is my meditation. This morning, I saw a young cougar.”
DeBey is the metalwork go-to guy in town and his work can be seen all over — including at the Perozzi-Butler fountain in Lithia Park, the now-recast Pioneer Mike statue in the Plaza and the ironwork at Peerless Restaurant.
Looking back on a full life, he says, “I don’t have many regrets. If I do, it’s not about things I did, but things I didn’t do. My philosophy is: ‘Everything you need is within five feet of you. You just have to look for it.’”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.