Establishment of the Museum
After the Second World War Lithuania Minor became depopulated. At the end of January 1945, there were only a dozen or so locals left in Klaipėda. The historical and cultural monuments of the city and the region were left unattended and unprotected. From the first post-war years, the cemeteries of Klaipėda began decaying, eventually taking the form of a target liquidation. In 1974, the demolition of the cemetery began: metal crosses, fences, etc. were taken to the scrap heap. Dionyzas Varkalis, a blacksmith and metal restorer from Klaipėda, managed to save and preserve some of the cemetery monuments (8 trucks full of crosses, fences and gates).
Soon afterwards, in a dilapidated building in Klaipėda’s Old Town (Šaltkalvių Street), Varkalis discovered the blacksmith shop of Gustav Katzke—a well-known master blacksmith in Klaipėda—which was filled with the authentic work tools and equipment of the old master. The idea of restoring this building and the one next to it, and creating a permanent exposition of blacksmith’s work, was born. The idea was supported by Alfonsas Žalys, a former chairman of the Klaipėda City Executive Committee, and the buildings were handed over to the Department of Culture, funds were allocated for designs and other works.
Following the restoration of the old blacksmith shop, D. Varkalis revived the craft of blacksmithing there and in the yard set up a temporary exposition of the cemetery crosses and fences. In 1991, the old blacksmith shop was handed over to the History Museum of Lithuania Minor, and its owner became the head of the Blacksmith’s exposition. In 1992, after the restoration of the main building was completed, the Blacksmith’s Museum, a branch of the History Museum Lithuania Minor, was ceremonially opened.
The History of the G. Katzke’s Blacksmith Shop
Blacksmiths of Klaipėda are mentioned as early as the 16th century. Blacksmiths, later on also locksmiths, supplied the city’s construction with forged nails, bindings for doors and windows, weathervanes, street lanterns, handrails, doors and bindings for ovens. The crafts of the Klaipėda region (including blacksmithing) have not only old traditions. In the 16th and 18th centuries, and especially in the 19th century, they were strictly regulated by the laws of the Prussian authorities.
In the middle of the 19th century, blacksmiths in the Klaipėda region commenced casting and making metal crosses and cemetery fences throughout the region.
Cemetery monuments and fences were mainly made in the late 19th century in the blacksmith shops of Klaipėda. There were several of them: 10 Kepėjų Street, 14 Puodžių Street, 1 Šaltkalvių Street (G. Katzke’s blacksmith-locksmith shop) and others.
At the end of the 19th century, Gustav Katzke, a famous blacksmith in Klaipėda and the whole region, settled down with his apprentices in Šaltkalvių Street. The blacksmith shop started operating in 1895. Orders for production of farming equipment and architectural details for the decoration of houses in the Old Town were accepted there, but it was the artistic crosses, cemetery fences and gates that made G. Katcke famous. In 1978, a monument of an original form was found in the Vilkyčiai cemetery (Šilutė district), bearing the manufacturer’s touchmark – “H. G. Katzke Landw. Maschinen. Memel”. This activity is also confirmed by G. Katzke’s own advertisements in newspapers in 1911–1914.
G. Katcke was the only blacksmith in the Klaipėda region to be awarded with an international silver medal for artistic blacksmithing. His blacksmith shop operated until 1944, when the front approached Klaipėda and G. Katcke left for Germany.
The Blacksmith’s Museum was opened in 1992 on the site of the locksmith’s Fr. Grimm blacksmith shop. The first floor is devoted mainly to materials about the blacksmith shop of the famous Klaipėda master G. Katcke. The exposition features an authentic blacksmith’s signboard, a whole display case of G. Katcke’s own hand-made wooden forms for casting letters and numbers, and the blacksmith’s touchmark. Here, the interior of G. Katcke’s blacksmith shop is recreated.
The exposition also displays gas lanterns, farming equipment, work tools and hinges for the doors of the blacksmith shop, which were made by G. Katcke and other Klaipėda blacksmith shops.
The second floor of the museum exhibits cemetery crosses, fences, gates, crosses in the form of the sun of the Greater Lithuania, architectural details of the houses in the Old Town of Klaipėda, fishing tools and household items. This exposition reflects the traces of two cultures – Greater Lithuania and Lithuania Minor. The crosses of Lithuania Minor were decorated with floral ornamentation. The crosses in Greater Lithuania, especially in Samogitia, were decorated with suns, stars, grass snakes, moons and other pagan symbols. The differences between the two cultures are evident from the layout of the exhibits in the hall.
The exposition on the first floor includes 7 exhibits from the Cathedral of Kaliningrad city: door fragments, forged oak leaves, branches of thuja trees and a forged crayfish.
Metal crosses were widely spread in the Klaipėda region as early as the 18th century. The crosses in this region do not feature the Crucified. Instead, there is a porcelain plaque with a poetic saying or the name and date of the deceased. Ornaments in Lithuania Minor consist of twisted spirals, finished with flower blossoms or leaves. All the crosses in the Blacksmith’s Museum’s exposition and in the courtyard date back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. In the courtyard of the Blacksmith shop-museum, a particularly artistic Klaipėda cemetery crosses and fences that were made from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century are displayed.