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The Mark of Tradition : Lasting Brands Born in Blacksmith’s Family Forge

Times Staff Writer

John B. Mahnken’s personal brand of craftsmanship comes with an ironclad guarantee: You won’t get burned by a bad product.

Mahnken produces branding irons. He shapes them over a coal-fueled fire in a 70-year-old forge in the small Ventura County blacksmith shop founded by his grandfather. And he makes them to last.

“The coal forge keeps the iron from scaling and flaking. You just can’t get the same quality from a gas forge,” Mahnken, 33, said. “There aren’t many shops left that use coal. It’s messy and it’s expensive.”

Members of the Mahnken family have been pounding out branding irons since 1933, when John C. Mahnken opened the cluttered, sooty shop in the center of Somis, a small farm town north of Camarillo.

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Son John H. Mahnken, 68, now runs the shop. Grandson John B. Mahnken someday will take it over. And great-grandson John B. Mahnken Jr., 7, may eventually follow in the same footsteps.

“He likes to come in and help out and get dirty,” John B. Mahnken said of his young son. “I got my start here with a broom when I was 9.”

The family has produced more than 100 branding irons for ranchers over the years. Mahnken said he has fabricated the last 10, using scrap iron to form one-of-a-kind designs that cattlemen have registered in advance with state officials.

They can be letters or symbols--although circles generally are avoided because they blur when burned onto cattle.

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The six-pound irons take about four hours of heating and hammering to be shaped into their approved designs. A final plunge into a 30-year-old redwood water trough gives them a hardened permanence.

Mahnken said he tests his completed irons on wooden boards to make certain they produce clean, readable brands.

The finished irons cost ranchers about $90 each. Mahnken said that more contemporary jobs, such as trailer-hitch welding, keep the family shop in the black.

He said he knows from firsthand experience that Mahnken branding irons are effective. At 16, Mahnken worked in Somis’ now-defunct cattle yard, spending a summer burning a “heel fly” brand onto the flanks of cattle.

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“My grandfather had made the iron I used. But at the time, I didn’t think much of it,” he said. “Later on, he taught me how to make ‘em myself.”

Mahnken said urban pressures squeezed the cattle yard out of Somis about eight years ago. Ventura County agriculture officials say the increasing cost of raising cattle in a dry climate--not development--is cutting into private ranchers’ beef-raising these days, however.

“Today, it’s getting pretty hard to make money in cattle,” said Bob Brendler, farm adviser for the county. “It’s our erratic rainfall. During the years that there is good feed on the grazing land here, there’s good feed everywhere, and young animals are hard for ranchers to get.”

That doesn’t mean that Mahnken’s branding iron days are numbered, though.

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James D. Smith, the state’s cattle-brand inspector for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, who works for the Department of Food and Agriculture and is based in Simi Valley, said he is braced for a branding boom. On cars, not cattle.

“We expect a run on brands because there may be legislation that will allow people with registered brands to have them put on their auto license plates,” he said. “It would be a status thing.”

If brands are allowed on license plates, John B. Mahnken might be tempted to fire up his forge and make a branding iron for himself.

“I don’t have an iron now. Who can afford a steer?” he said.

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