LEEDEY — Joe Smith is a man with a most common name and a most unusual form of art.
Smith, who ran a bulldozer for a half-century, doesn't work in oils or clay, but rather horseshoes.
And now, the dreams of the 86-year-old western Oklahoma native have taken off.
On a work table in Smith's shop is a blue and yellow model of a Stearman PT-17 Kaydet biplane sprinkled with dust shavings.
It was from this that Smith took the dimensions for his half-size replica biplane constructed from horseshoes.
The result of those six months of work is just a ways up the gravel drive at his home south of Leedey. While Smith doesn't have an exact count on the number of horseshoes used, he can provide an example of how many horseshoes went into a portion of it.
“I built the bottom wing first, it had seven horseshoes across and is 26 horseshoes long, and that's one wing and then there's the other top wing,” he said of the half-size biplane replica he finished weeks ago. “We ordered that Stearman model to get ratio and proportion. It's not all guesswork; none of it is guesswork.
“It's pretty big. It probably weighs close to a ton.”
In case you doubt whether this weighty-winged work will fly; it will. Well, sort of, thanks to the massive pipe it's mounted on. And because of the rear axle out of a tractor-trailer, good bearings and a tug on one of the horseshoes from Smith's right hand, it spins.
Why does Joe use horseshoes?
“They're pretty forgiving. They'll just about fit any way that you want them to fit,” he explained.
But, there is more to the plane than the horseshoes.
There's the wood propeller and the baling wire used for the hair of the pilot and passenger.
“Someone saw that the hair of the girl in the back seat and that of the pilot were down,” said Leah Smith, Joe's wife of 60 years. “So they straightened that baling wire so it looks like the wind is blowing their hair.”
While his horseshoe art can be found in other cities in Oklahoma, it's the road leading up to the Smiths' house that leaves visitors scratching, tilting and just shaking their heads at how this man can take objects intended for other purposes and transform them into whatever he sets his mind to.
Besides horseshoes, Joe Smith has used wheelbarrows, wrenches, steam engines and a lot of other metals to build decorated fences, weather vanes, kachina dolls and an eagle perched on the edge of a nest. His personal favorite is the donkey he created, which stands only a few feet from a 27-foot-tall spinning sphere made of horseshoes.
And though his 44-foot-tall saguaro cactus horseshoe creation seems massive, it's no match for the height, depth and width of Smith's incredible imagination, which has been churning for some time.
Smith grew up about a mile south of his present home.
“My dad had a blacksmith shop over there where he'd sharpen plow points and did different things,” Smith said.
“When the rest of them would all take a nap, I'd go out there and crank the forge up and make something.”
But, for many years there wasn't a lot of time for that. Smith operated a dozer from the Oklahoma-Texas state line east to Clinton, and from Camargo south to Elk City, doing soil conservation work.
However, even though he stopped running a dozer, his mind and hands have kept going. They have to.
“This is basically a fun thing, but I think it's because he's not able to get on that dozer any longer and run it,” Leah Smith said. “He's got to be doing something. He reads. You cannot believe how much he reads, and it doesn't make a difference what it is, Forbes, Time, Zane Grey books.
“It takes him a little longer to make his things in the shop now because he doesn't work as many hours. He still does it though.”
His mind seldom rests.
“Well, you go to bed at night and you try to go to sleep, and you can't,” he said. “You're thinking ‘What am I going to do now?' ‘Am I going to change this up?' It doesn't ever end.”
And he doesn't really want it to.
Asked why he created the horseshoe airplane, Joe said he'd given it some thought for three or four years.
“So that's one way to get it off your mind, get it done and do something else,” he said.
What on his mind now?
“I don't know. I'm still thinking,” Smith said. “I don't want another big project that takes six months to a year.
“I'd rather do something smaller that somebody can't even dream about.”