When Ken Maxfield was a child, his father, Robert, owned the Calistoga Steam Railroad Co. From 1975 to 1979 the tourist attraction included a rebuilt 1913 locomotive that carried tourists around a 2.5-mile loop of track on the southeast side of town.
Maxfield’s future as a blacksmith was forged when he watched as the ancient iron train was reassembled piece by piece, the welders working, the sparks flying, and then standing in awe as the grandiose engine bellowed steam before it crept down the tracks on its maiden voyage.
“When I saw my dad and the others working on the train day after day, all of them with their old tools and equipment, I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” Maxfield said.
From then on, transforming metal into functional items that many also consider works of art was about all he could think about, or as Maxfield put it, “I was like a moth to a flame.”
From a forgotten time
Maxfield’s workshop, housed in a barn on the outskirts of Calistoga, is replete with handmade tools that hang from the walls above hefty centuries-old anvils that are positioned next to fiery forges glowing orange, their blue-tipped flames occasionally flickering skyward. The air smells of burnt metal and hard work, with the only sense of modernity the crackly sound of a Hank Williams CD and a few brightly colored acetylene tanks used for welding. Outside, a 1963 Ford truck represents Maxfield’s “newest” vehicle. The entire shop and its owner seem to have stepped directly out of a forgotten time.
As we talked, Maxfield continued to work, the sharp clang of metal on metal occasionally ringing out, reverberating off the walls.
Clad in a leather smock and dressed in a hand-sewn white cotton shirt and dark trousers, the bearded blacksmith moved fluidly — his body, hands and metal seemingly linked together as they plunged a hunk of cold steel into the orange coal-fire forge with tongs, then twisted back around quickly to hammer the glowing metal into something intricate and surprisingly delicate, such as a grape leaf. Unlike many metal workers, Maxfield does not use preformed molds or presses in his shop. Everything is handmade, often with little more to go on than a simple sketch drawn with chalk on the floor.
Transforming metal into functional art
“Ken is wary of technology,” said Mary Jo Geitner, Maxfield’s partner for the last 22 years. “He’s always been an old soul. And he’s also been uniquely fascinated by metal — he has a love for it. But it’s more than that, I think: It’s transforming something from the earth into something beautiful — not perfect, but real. He’s a true artist.”
Geitner and Maxfield often work together designing projects, sharing ideas and sketching out rough drawings of what a final piece might look like. But these are only guidelines, and as a piece progresses it might change and morph as the project evolves and the final object is revealed.
“Before I met Ken, I thought of metal as something fixed, something solid,” Geitner said. “But through his eyes metal is like clay. While working on a piece he might notice something new or I might see something, and he’ll work to uncover it.”
A gate to the past
Because Maxfield does not have a computer or a TV and only reluctantly carries a flip phone, his clients come mostly through word of mouth or personal connections. And yet, travel through the Napa Valley and if you come to a gate or railing that is made from handcrafted metalwork, chances are it has come from his hands. His work at wineries and in homes is often shrouded in hushed silence, as if the owners are reluctant to share the secret, fearing that if others find out about this quiet artist they might have to wait in a long line for their next piece. However, one client, Tim Petersen, co-owner of Silverado Ace Hardware, is happy to show off Maxfield’s work.
“I’ve known Ken since we were kids,” Petersen said. “He’s always been mechanical, and his iron work speaks for itself — it’s truly one of a kind.”
Ten years ago, Petersen and his wife, Maryanne, decided they wanted to create a new gate for their storefront. They wanted something special, something unique, and so they called Maxfield.
“I had a bunch of old tools, and we thought it would be interesting to make a gate out of them,” Petersen said. “After drawing out a few options on the shop floor with chalk, Ken suggested we add in vines and I thought it was a great idea.”
From that point, Geitner suggested adding in a hummingbird because of Maryanne’s love of birds, and Petersen suggested adding roots to the vines that twisted around the tools, “like an old farmer had buried them there years ago.”
From there, Maxfield worked for months bending and sculpting each intricate detail of the gate. Today the work of art stands at the entrance of Petersen’s shop on Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga.
“We get a lot of people coming in and asking about it,” Petersen said. “It really tells a story of the quality of Ken’s work and his vision but also something about this place and our history.”
The gate consists of two panels, one side an ancient grapevine brandishing grape clusters and iron tools, Petersen’s father in-law’s old Ford Model T wrench held tight within the vine’s roots. The second panel showcases a meandering vine with passionflowers — one of which has a tiny hummingbird poised in midair, as if caught in the act of sipping nectar. Look closely at the very base of this panel and you’ll find the artist’s name and his phone number etched into a small brass plaque.