Historic Site May Be Lost to Indifference

williamson blast furnace
Photo: tnironfurnacetrail.org

The Williamson County Courthouse is guarded by four Doric columns at its portico that were smelted in 1857 at the Caney Fork Foundry, which is also known as the Williamson County Blast Furnace. The Blast Furnace remains are located on land in Fairview that has recently been sold for development and a group of interested individuals is trying to reach out to others who would be interested in erecting a memorial to the historic site on the property.

“The owner has agreed to forbear for three weeks as to further action in clearing the site to allow time for expressions of interest,” said Bud Carman, Attorney for Williamson Blast Furnace.

A previous version of our story said that Carman had been unable to find a group interested in preserving the site; however, Carman recently noted that he has had contact with The Heritage Foundation. They have had a conversation with him about coming up with a plan on how to go forward on preservation of the site.

“Significant work would be involved if the plan were to include restoration as part of preservation,” noted Carman. “Rachael Finch (Director of Preservation and Education, Heritage Foundation) and I discussed some ideas and agreed to get together again. No timeline was set.”

According to research completed by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, “In 1847, there were 21 blast furnaces, 11 forges, and three rolling mills operating on or near the Cumberland River in the greater Nashville vicinity. Similarly, along the Tennessee River from Hardin County to Stewart County, 12 furnaces and eight forges were in production…Tennessee usually led the South in pig iron production during the first half of the nineteenth century.”

Around each of these furnaces was a village devoted to making them function. In the MTSU research, written into a pamphlet entitled, “The Historic Iron Industry of Middle Tennessee”, the workings of a Blast Furnace are described. “The early iron making operations took place on large, remote, self-sustaining plantations and often employed hundreds of workers: male and female, young and old, black and white, who mined the ore, burned charcoal, hauled raw materials, produced the metal itself, grew and prepared food, or performed the many and varied tasks of the village and its surrounding farms.”

“Supervising the entire operation was the multitalented ironmaster who functioned as chief executive officer, head engineer, personnel director, and sales manager. Further, it was his ultimate responsibility to make sure that there were adequate supplies of ore, wood, charcoal, and foodstuffs, as well as horses, mules, and workers who could perform the many and varied tasks. Under the watchful eye of the founder, whose job it was to keep the furnace in blast twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the blast furnace chemically reduced large amounts of ore and limestone flux into molten metal and waste material,” the tract goes on to explain.

Discovery of iron by ancient man in about 4,000 B.C. change the course of history. Until the production of steel, iron was used for everything from arrow heads to railroads. While the furnace itself may be gone, it’s importance to the life and economy of the area in days gone by is important.

Production of iron used the hard work and knowledge of a diverse group of people the pamphlet goes on to explain. “In addition to slaves and free blacks, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English, and Germans are represented in the census records as furnace workers. Some cemeteries associated with the iron plantations have markers noting the country of origin of the deceased. Family and county histories and oral traditions recount stories telling where and how families came to be in the area, and their part in the diverse and fascinating history of Tennessee’s iron industry.”

Located on the property is the remains of the limestone furnace stack built in 1832 by Moses Speer. It passed through many hands and fell to misuse by the 1840s, but according the MTSU treatment, “local tradition holds that in 1857 the fluted columns of the County Courthouse were cast at Pugh & Company’s Franklin Foundry from pig iron manufactured at the Williamson Furnace.”

“The Williamson Blast Furnace referenced in the historical marker located on the square in Franklin at the old courthouse is located on an acreage tract in the Fernvale Valley at 7544 Caney Fork Road, Fairview. Expressions of interest will be most effective if coupled with an expression of willingness to support funding for preservation of the site,” added Carman. Contact him at [email protected] to aid in the fight for preservation of the site.

“I have received expressions of local interest along with the question, “How can I help?”,” Carman updated, “and the answer at this point is, “Be patient and we will stay in touch”.

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