by Judith Redline Coopey
We’ve all seen them – those old stone iron furnaces tucked away in rural valleys with streams running close, remnants of a by-gone era when iron making was a mainstay of Pennsylvania’s economy. Almost every county has a few tumble-down truncated limestone pyramids offering mute testimony to what was once a thriving industry and way of life.
My interest in Pennsylvania’s iron industry was awakened when I started writing Pennsylvania historical fiction. I like to re-search and write about topics that haven’t been worn out over the years, and I grew up in Blair County near one of the best preserved iron works in the state–so I got curious about Mt Etna, near Williamsburg.
Mt Etna, on the Lower Trail, part of the Pennsylvania Rails to Trails project, is a great day trip for hikers and bikers alike. What you’ll find there when you go is the iron master’s mansion, built in 1828, now undergoing renovation, and three of the original workers’ log cabins, used as residences as recently as the 1970s. A short walk brings you to the ruins of the furnace itself and some very well-preserved buildings that were once the center of a thriving iron plantation. There is the company store, now a beautifully restored private residence, a tenant house, the original dwelling built in 1796 which now serves as a guest house, and a huge old stone bank barn which housed a hundred mules in the 1800s.
What fascinated me in my research was how self-sufficient an iron plantation was. Usually located in a remote rural area near a fast-flowing stream, the far-flung operations included ore mines, limestone quarries, forests for charcoal burning, farms for food production, the furnace itself, often with a forge nearby, a grist mill, a saw mill, a church, a school and various forms of transportation. An iron plantation was a tight little community with both skilled and unskilled workers pulling together to produce iron for household implements, tools, machine parts, musket balls or iron rails.
The iron master was a paternalistic employer whose company store provided for the needs of the workers, stocking food, clothing, household necessities, medicines and even alcohol. The iron master usually kept a close eye on alcohol consumption in the interest of uninterrupted production, so alcohol purchases were often restricted.
Once in blast, the furnace ran day and night, six days a week. It was usually banked on Saturday night prior to the Sabbath, but production resumed on Sunday evening. It was loud and hot, very strenuous and dangerous work. The wages were high for the times, and housing, schooling, a garden plot and access to firewood, hunting and fishing were included. Workers pulled twelve hour shifts six days per week.
By nature of their isolation, iron villages were close knit communities, but workers were free to come and go as there was always work at another furnace, forge, quarry or ore mine. Many a life was lived from the cradle to the grave on a single iron plantation. People knew one another, worked together, worshipped together, shared life’s trials and triumphs in the seclusion of the village.
Some villages were laid out in a circle with a village green in the middle where people came together to share the news or the labor. The community well was often located within this common area, and sometimes the area might be used as a community garden. Children played, fished, hunted, picked berries, had sledding parties, school and church picnics or sporting contests all within the village or its environs. Many iron plantations had their own cemeteries which now offer mute testimony to the lives which played out in the shadow of the ever present furnace.
Iron plantations varied in size, depending on production needs, with an average of 75 to 100 workers employed, giving a population of 300-400 including families. Not all workers lived in the village. Some came from nearby farms while others boarded with local families.
While the design of workers’ houses varied, a plain two story log cabin with two rooms downstairs and two up was common. Heat came from a fireplace or, later from a cook stove. Candles or kerosene lanterns and lamps provided light. Since there was usually no indoor plumbing, water was carried from the common well and disposed of on the garden. Each cabin had its own “necessary” out back.
As far as food was concerned, most workers’ houses included a garden plot, a chicken coop and maybe a pig sty. People grew, preserved, pickled, butchered, dried and salted their own winter supply including the products of the local woods, streams and meadows – fish, game, nuts, roots and berries. The company store carried preserving supplies like salt and exotic foods like oranges at Christmas time. Otherwise, the villagers were on their own.
Family members learned the value of hard work at a young age. Boys tended the garden, fished and hunted for the family, hired out to local farms at haying or harvest time. There was plenty of work for girls as well: tending the chickens, helping with the washing which was done outside over an open fire, sewing, mending and various kinds of needle work. Young women often earned a little pocket money by doing laundry and mending for unmarried workers.
While the work was hard, and the life demanding, living on a 19th century iron plantation offered its own rewards. Families were close, friendships lasted a lifetime, life’s triumphs were shared as were its woes. People were self-reliant, resourceful and resilient, capable of facing life’s hardships with courage and faith in themselves and their God.
Next time you drive past one of those old furnaces, take a long look and appreciate the way of life that paved the way for your own. Despite the conveniences of modern technology, you’re not as far removed from it as you may think. I like to think I could go back to that time and place and thrive. Maybe. How about you?