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10 Country: Jimmy stops history

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November 5, 2008

Randolph Co. - Across from a soybean field with its hairy pods ready for harvest sits a time machine, of sorts.

Jimmy Milner, a modern day blacksmith, works like a well oiled machine grabbing a hot peanut digger blade with his right hand, with a rag separating his flesh from the hot steel.

"I learned how to do this from my father," says Jimmy just before he places the steel blade under a mechanical hammer. 

His left foot presses a metal ring at the base of the machine and it starts beating the red-hot edge unmercifully.

"You're watching the hammer mash it (the steel) out to a feather-edge," says Jimmy as he slowly pushes the blade under the hammer with its deafening pounding sound, much louder than standing by a jet engine.  

He's the ultimate re-cycler, sharpening steel blades used to cut tap roots of peanut plants quickly so a machine can pull them up to the surface to dry before harvest. The blades work underground where the soil acts much like heavy-duty sandpaper, dulling the blades after acres and acres of setting the peanuts free from their earthly attachment.

One blade after another gets pulled from a gas-powered furnace that heats the edges until they're red hot, about 2,800° F.  

He stays busy with a short assembly line in his open air shed, grabbing the next blade for hammering, positioning the next one in line over the fire, holding it under the hammer to beat a razor's edge, inspecting it to make sure it's straight and then putting it in a cooling rack.     

"I sharpen anywhere from 100 to 200 blades a day," says Jimmy. "I get tired out, give out, but keep going."

Farmers have a choice. They can grind their own blades to sharpen them or buy new ones, but a third-generation farmer prefers following the wisdom of his ancestors.

"They just stay a whole lot sharper," says Guerry Sauls. "My granddaddy used them and daddy."

Plus, the cost saving angle with Jimmy's re-cycled blades.

"They are about $10 to $12 per blade cheaper than new ones," says Jimmy who adds farmers often have between about a dozen blades to literally hundreds of them depending on how many acres of peanuts they harvest.

Jimmy doesn't know how much longer he can follow his father's lead when he opened the business in 1953.  The self-taught blacksmith did his own research by sharpening blades and testing them in fields.

"He learned by trial and error," says Jimmy.

 He passed along what he learned to Jimmy who picked-up the family's sharpening business in 1970.

"My dad used a coal-fired furnace; I use a gas-fired one," says Jimmy and like most everything else, he's seen the price of gas increase.

He has another concern.

"I'm down to my last hammer. I've got four broken ones over there and I don't know what I'll do if the base of this one breaks," says Jimmy.

He can still get parts for the hammer, but finding its base presents quite a challenge.

"You don't find them just anywhere," says Jimmy.

Why does he endure the constant, exceptionally loud pounding sound and the increasing cost of running the business?

"Being able to do what most people can't do," says Jimmy with a quick laugh with ear protection hanging around his shirt collar.

He takes lots of pride in his work that looks rather easy to the untrained eye.  He must hold the steel perfectly still while it takes its beating or it will fly off when hit by the hammer.  Then, Jimmy looks down the sharpened edge to see if it's straight.  If not, he'll place the blade on an anvil and hit it a couple of times with a blacksmith's hammer.  The blade, still hot, gives up and straightens out.  Jimmy wins.

Jimmy grinds off part of the sharpened blade.

"We just knock the high edges off," says Jimmy about a blade that looks like a huge razor.

With the roaring sound of a forced-air, gas furnace and the never ending sound of the mechanical hammer at work, you wonder if Jimmy gets a headache.

"The only headache I get is from the farmers who wanted them (blades) yesterday and brought them today," says Jimmy with a laugh.

Farmers hope he'll keeping going, sharpening the blade that make peanut harvesting possible, allowing them to save several dollars while re-cycling steel that would go it a junk heap. 

In effect, Jimmy rates as the ultimate re-cycler, extending the life of steel, helping farmers get as many peanuts out of the ground as possible by sharpening metal that does its work underground.

When Jimmy isn't sharpening peanut blades he works in construction.

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