The Iron Furnace

Cedar Grove Furnace, located on the Furnace Branch of Cedar Creek in Perry County, is the only remaining double stack charcoal furnace within the Western Highland Rim region of Middle Tennessee.

This furnace is a single structure in the shape of a truncated pyramid, roughly 31 feet by 52 feet by 30 feet tall, housing two boshes and two chimneys side-by-side. The furnace itself was built at the foot of a small hill and the base constructed out of native limestone, hand hewn and fitted with precision, and then lined on the inside with handmade firebricks that were produced a short distance down the branch. Cedar Grove Furnace, located on the Furnace Branch of Cedar Creek in Perry County, is the only remaining double stack charcoal furnace within the Western Highland Rim region of Middle Tennessee. This furnace is a single structure in the shape of a truncated pyramid, roughly 31 feet by 52 feet by 30 feet tall, housing two boshes and two chimneys side-by-side. The furnace itself was built at the foot of a small hill and the base constructed out of native limestone, hand hewn and fitted with precision, and then lined on the inside with handmade firebricks that were produced a short distance down the branch. 


Wallace Dixon, the builder of the Cedar Grove Iron Works, had come from Dickson County where he, Anthony W. Vanleer, and Isaac Lanier had owned the Cumberland Furnace and the Jones Creek Forge together. After the new partnership of Dixon and William Dickinson acquired several large grants of vacant land in Perry County under state law, they constructed a single-stack furnace in 1832, but then rebuilt it as a double stack the following year. When one furnace was in blast, the other one was being prepared for use. 


The iron ore itself was drawn from the adjacent Marsh Creek area. The miners laboriously removed the brown hematite from the open beds with picks and shovels, and then loaded the raw iron into heavy carts. Dixon had instructed some of his workers to tunnel through the hill that separated the two creeks so they could lay rails directly from the ore banks to the furnace. Teams of jennets (small horses that wouldn’t back up) continuously drew the vehicles loaded with ore along this railway and kept the furnace in good supply. 


The furnace at Cedar Grove was possibly the earliest in the state to smelt iron with the “hot blast” technique. This method represented a sophisticated use of previously wasted energy that would eventually revolutionize the iron industry. Invented by Scotsman James Neilson in 1828, the procedure consisted solely of heating the contents of the blast before it was loaded into the furnace. By this means the rate of combustion was intensified and more iron could be reclaimed from the same amount of ore with less fuel. 


When interviewed by State Geologist Gerard Troost in 1833, Dixon estimated his usual production to be about forty tons of iron per week. Teamsters carried the cast iron pigs in ox-drawn wagons two miles west to the Tennessee River where they were loaded onto specially fitted boats and shipped to their ultimate destination. These flat-bottomed craft were about sixty-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide, and could carry several tons of freight. 
Cedar Grove Furnace became the center of a semi-feudal industrial plantation, set among 8,800 acres of hardwood forest. Numerous buildings, such as the ironmaster’s large house, kitchen, smoke house, store house, blacksmith shops, workers’ houses, stables, corn cribs, grist mill, etc. surrounded the furnace and its ancillary structures. More than a hundred people called the self-contained village home. Many of the workers were enslaved, either owned by the principals or hired out from nearby slaveholders. Some of the hands were white, such as Anderson Bunch, a Virginian who had left his native state on account of hard times. Bunch, his four sons, and four of his slaves worked at the furnace at various times of the year.


After a few years, Dixon & Company’s debts had mounted and the business went into receivership. In 1836, Col. Charles J. Love and Dr. William M. Gwin, two close associates of Andrew Jackson, purchased the ironworks. Love had tended to Jackson’s affairs in Tennessee and supervised the rebuilding of the Hermitage while the president stayed in Washington, D.C., and Gwin served as the United States Marshal of Mississippi under Jackson. Both partners speculated in land and hoped to make money in the iron business.


The two retained Dixon as the ironmaster and Love supervised the operation of the furnace while Gwin held office in Natchez. A serious problem arose when the partnership was unable to hire out enough black laborers for the coming year despite offering a premium price of $175 per man. Finally, Dr. Gwin had to buy high-priced slaves in Mississippi and send them north. Despite being short-handed, Col. Love remained optimistic and described the facility as the best in Tennessee and possibly even the United States. He assured Gwin that iron would prove to be more lucrative than either cotton or sugar, and that with 100 men and boys and a forge to make blooms, they would make $50,000 in a year.


Unfortunately, Love contracted malaria and died in late July 1837. Love’s untimely death had a devastating effect on the operations at Cedar Grove. During this unsettled time, fear and apprehension must have increased among the work force, and a breakdown in order soon became apparent. Less than a month and a half later, five of the enslaved furnace hands slipped away and did not return. To make things worse, a dispute seems to have erupted between the surviving partner and the heirs of the deceased, and the furnace remained inactive for several years while the matter wound its way through Chancery Court. Love’s estate eventually obtained a judgment of almost $31,000 against Gwin.


Finally, in 1845, Anthony Vanleer, Samuel B. Lanier, and William Ewing purchased Cedar Grove Furnace outright, rebuilt it, and put it back in blast. Ewing, a thirty-five-year-old Scottish-born ironmaster, had come to the Tennessee Valley from Virginia. The following year, he and James P. McNickle bought the furnace from the other two partners for $15,000 and began to operate it on a daily basis. With a workforce of 120 men, they produced 1,800 tons of pig metal in 1850.    


In the early 1850s, after the death of Ewing, William Bradley & Company took over management of the works. Bradley was an experienced ironmaster who most recently had run the Rough & Ready Furnace in Stewart County before selling out and moving to Perry County. He brought several of his valuable hands with him, including Pascal Broadaway, a skilled carpenter, and his wife, Sallie, who lit the fires at the furnace buildings early each morning.


Cedar Grove Furnace operated until early February 1862, when the fall of Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River to Flag-Officer Andrew H. Foote’s muddy water fleet. One or more of these Federal gunboats lobbed cannonballs almost two miles from the river toward the vicinity of the furnace. This bombardment frightened and scattered the workforce and operations ceased. Years later, local farmers unearthed some of these projectiles while plowing their fields. Bradley himself was ambushed and killed as he crossed the Spring Branch one day, and was buried at the top of a small hill, a short distance west of the furnace. After that, everything deteriorated rather quickly, and by 1883 nothing remained as a witness to the life and industry of the place but the old limestone furnace stacks. 


The dramatic ruin exists today on property that is owned by the Perry County government. In 1976, in order to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States of America, Koppers, Inc., who owned the old furnace stack as well as the surrounding lands, donated the historic stone structure and three and a half acres to the county for use as a park. Cedar Grove Furnace was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.


 
*  See Hankins, Caneta S., and Michael T. Gavin, Cedar Grove Furnace: Landmark Survivor, prepared for Perry County and the City of Linden, 2003.

Reprinted from the site www.tnironfurnacetrail.org

 

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