A story I published in 2002 about the “Charleston Gatekeeper, Mr. Philip Simmons. Simmons was an amazing man to interview and meet. I still remember the passion held in his eyes. Now, we in the Charleston community remember him as a legacy. A tall, humble man with kind eyes and a pleasant voice. One of the most admirable characters I have ever met. Rest in peace, Philip Simmons!
The Charleston Gatekeeper
Hammering His Way into History
His eyes embrace a gentle, caring nature. When he speaks, his voice is soft and harmonious, demonstrating the pleasant, soft-spoken Southern gentleman named Philip Simmons, an internationally known blacksmith. Although he is almost 90 years old, he stands tall and upright, walking with a determined stride, passion dancing in his eyes.
Born on June 9, 1912 on Daniel Island, South Carolina, Simmons is truly an inspiration to others, a role model to the City of Charleston and the artistry he preserves.
He was just a small boy when he came to Charleston in 1920, with a gleam in his eyes, determination in his pace. Following the advice of his grandfather he moved from Daniel Island to Charleston to pursue his schooling.
Discovered His Passion
One day while walking in Charleston, he discovered a blacksmith shop. He entered the shop, watching the blacksmith while he worked. The blacksmith moved methodically hammering the iron into bits and pieces of works of art. Philip recognized he had discovered his life’s work. He told the blacksmith he wanted to learn the trade of a blacksmith, because he wanted a job. The blacksmith listened, encouraging the young lad to return when he was older.
When Simmons turned 13 in 1925, he returned to the blacksmith’s shop, working as an apprentice for Peter Simmons, a former slave, blacksmith, and mentor to Philip Simmons. Although not related, Peter Simmons saw something extraordinary in Philip Simmons and took him under his thumbs teaching Philip the artistry of blacksmithing.
Perceptive of the artistry of his protégé and friend, Peter Simmons, Philip Simmons strove to learn all that he could about iron working. He cleaned the shop, repaired items, and when the automobile era began, he found himself working on automobile metals, shaping iron objects into useful items for cars, and wagons. Continuing to expand his passion for his love of blacksmithing, in 1939 Simmons turned his infatuation with iron work into a lifetime career by repairing iron gates. Within a year or two he was making garden gates, stair banisters, balconies, and fences. Years later, Peter Simmons left him with a legacy and trade that would last Philip Simmons a lifetime.
The craftsmanship of a blacksmith dates back many centuries in history. Blacksmiths construct pieces of iron into objects by hammering the piece on an anvil. The metal is heated until it blazes with a burnt reddish shade of fire; then, the blacksmith welds the objects into shapes of his inspiration. The craftsmanship of a blacksmith can be a long, detailed process; nevertheless for Philip Simmons, the skill of blacksmithing is more than a job, or obligation. Blacksmithing is a part of his character, revealing the heart and soul of his personality. Working with irons, metals, hammers, tools, and fires reveals a visual portrait of the man he is. Excitement burns in his eyes, while his tall, lean muscular stature exemplifies the strapping sense of pride he has about the art form.
Simmons scribbles the inspiration for his designs on pieces of paper, or anything he can get his hands on when the ideas occur. Much of Simmons work reflects nature, because “I love to be outdoors,” he says with a grin. “Sometimes I look outside and see a bird, a leaf, a fish, or something close to nature, and I draw it on paper. I just love nature.”
Simmons Became a Family Man
During the 1930’s, Simmons lost his wife at a young age, leaving him with three small children. Fortunately, he found the strength to raise the children. “I didn’t find it too difficult. I had the good Lord watching over us, and I had two grown sisters who helped me with the children, chores, and myself.”
Living in a time of his life when most senior citizens are enjoying retirement, Simmons is still active at his shop. “I keep the shop open for the tourists, tour busses that drop by and for my cousin, Joseph Pringle,” he said. “Sometimes I go to teach blacksmithing with the South Carolina Blacksmith Association. Just a few weeks ago I went to Columbia to teach a class. I keep the shop open, and in some sense, I am still active. I no longer do the hard work of blacksmithing, but I do most of the drawings myself.”
Philip Simmons is internationally known for his blacksmith talents. Charleston residents, the Historic Charleston Foundation, and South Carolina State Museum, located in Columbia are only a few of the commissioned ornamental works by Philip Simmons. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Simmons the National Heritage Fellowship. In 1994 he was recognized by the State of South Carolina, inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in Myrtle Beach, SC. The Smithsonian Museum has some of his work, along with an ornamental gazebo located at Charleston International Airport. In 1996, Simmons created a wrought iron gate for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Years back I did not do anything to distinguish my signature, but later, I used a stamp, putting my name and signature on the pieces,” he whispers.
Deeply religious, Simmons takes little credit for his accomplishments, preferring to give all the recognition to “the Lord, customers, and the children.”
Simmons is still active in the City of Charleston. “I’m a member of the YMCA, Boys Club and active in my church. I like being involved with kids, and I do all I can to provide deserving students a chance.”
Simmons lives on the East side of Charleston because he wants to preserve the site and his shop for future generations. “This place has four generations of blacksmiths here, starting with Peter Simmons, Guy Simmons, myself, and my cousin, Joseph Pringle. I hope this site is preserved. I lived a long time here,” he said with a smile.
When tourists arrive to see his shop and samples of his ornamental iron art work, he welcomes them. “They just want to meet a man who still does blacksmith work. They probably heard about me somewhere and just want to see the blacksmith shop.”
Walking in his shop, works of iron are remembrances of earlier times in America. “Some old ways were the best ways,” he grins. “I’ve been blessed by the good Lord,” he says, “So, I provide deserving kids a chance by teaching them how to blacksmith and to help them get an education. I tell them to work hard. I talk to the kids, deserving kids, and I do all I can to help them. When they come by to thank me, I am rewarded. Almost every day some kid will stop by to thank me for what I did, and that is my reward.”
Although Philip Simmons is a bit modest, stating that all he wanted to pursue in blacksmithing was a job; now, he has become an icon to the City of Charleston and the history and preservation of blacksmith artistry.
“Sometimes the old methods still work. I have to give all the credit to the Lord. I had to work hard to please the customers, because if you don’t have customers, you don’t have work. And if you don’t have work, you don’t have food on the table. I built things on quality, not quantity, respecting others while I worked. I’ve been blessed, so I try to bless others.”
With a passionate twinkle in his eyes, Philip Simmons, his name, artistry, and his love for blacksmith creations will remain as a hallmark to all who admire the works of a blacksmith. Hammering his way to preserve the tools of a trade no longer in demand as it was in the past, Philip Simmons is honored to be the Charleston Gatekeeper.