The Fucina de le Broche allows us to see how nails were forged for the footwear worn until halfway through the last century. This was an important business in the Valle di Ledro, and considered an essential service to the extent that it allowed the inhabitants of the valley to return from the front during the First World War and at times to avoid conscription altogether in the Second.
From the 17th century on, the growing importance of the valley's ironworks, especially in Prè and Molina, wrought significant changes in an economy which for centuries has been based on tillage, forestry and grazing, which had brought little profit to the locality. The ironworks meant a more remunerative type of business and offered employment to hundreds of workers for over two centuries: some were involved in smelting the iron ore or working the metal in the plants, while others transported finished products to and from the port of Ponale or bunkered fuel for the furnaces.
A century later 13 large furnaces were working in the valley. But the expansion of Napoleonic influence saw Trentino pass under direct rule from the Hapsburg Tyrol, forcing a considerable drop in production. The crisis continued until half-way through the 19th century, when the valley's ironworks were closed. Only a few small forges remained active, shoeing animals, and providing farm implements and nails.
A new surge in activity occurred in 1866, when workers migrated to the valley from the Bergamo and Brescia areas, took over the abandoned ironworks and launched an industry which was quite different from the rough hobnail output of the past and required a greater degree of skill and specialisation .
The inhabitants of the valley soon learned out how to make ‘brocche di zappa' or special hoe(zappa)-shaped hobnails, with the centre of production again located around Prè and Molina, where the rhythmic striking of hammer blows was again heard from the ironworks.
Hobnails for footwear had a variety of shapes and were designed to protect the soles which were at best made of leather but more often of wood.
Work continued until the plants were once again shut down due to conscription for the Austrian army and the Bohemian exodus during the First World War. But soon the army found itself short of hobnails for its boots.
The parish priest of Molina contacted the government in Vienna, which had many of the ex-nailmakers discharged and put to work in a couple of large ironworks built in the centre of the Empire, where the workers spent the remainder of the war. They thus escaped the risks of the front, but each nailmaker was required to meet a quota of a thousand nails a day, no easy feat given that each nail required 30-40 hammer blows.
Hobnails were again in high demand during the Second World War, but this time exemptions from military service or special discharges were rarer and many very young and old people were called on to work in the plants to meet the growing demand.
Immediately after the war, rubber soles began to replace hobnailed leather soles and the industry went into terminal decline, making its nailmakers redundant.
About 40 years on from the closing of the ironworks, the Municipality of Molina saw to it that a small forge was reopened at Prè for the purposes of conservation and illustration, with just one fire and four workbenches, equipped with the implements used in the past and samples of all types of hobnails.
On special occasions or at the request of the local community association for groups of visitors, the last four nailmakers are still available to stoke their fires and show the enthusiasm that once went into the making of hobnails (watch the video).