By: J. Michael Stroth
In several isolated areas of Ohio iron deposits had been found which resulted in limited production of iron. In the 1830's easily mined iron ore was discovered from an area that stretched from Hocking County thirty miles wide in a south-southwest direction across the Ohio River into Kentucky. This became known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region (HRIR).
By 1830, four furnaces had been erected in Ohio with twelve more being built in the 1840's. This was in a time when there was no rail or other form of cheap, reliable transportation except unimproved roads. There was no other way to get any products to market.
In 1851, construction of Buckeye Furnace in Milton Township in Jackson County, began built by the company of Hawkins, Daniels & Co. (HD&Co.). In addition to the furnace complex, they owned or leased several thousand acres of land with continuous stands of virgin timber, supplying the fuel when converted to charcoal. The surrounding hills contained easily mined iron ore that provided the material that yielded a high grade of iron. In the Buckeye Furnace lands there was also limestone. This material provided "flux" (attracting impurities forming a paste on top of the molten iron in the production process).
The most important part of the mixture was a young workforce of immigrants providing the muscle to make the iron. These folks from Germany and Ireland would work for meager wages at most of the furnace operations in the region. In several cases Welsh immigrants provided the manpower to do the job.
Life was a sparse and rugged experience at a typical furnace in those days. Small cabins were built by the company and rented to the workers, each with enough land for a garden and an area to raise hogs and cows. Where once had been virgin forests all was clear-cut to provide fuel for the hungry furnace.
For a typical family this meant the husband worked seven days a week from "can see to can't see." (In the latter years of furnace operations the work time was reduced to six days a week.) The wife had the care of all other chores including seeing to the children, washing, sewing, cooking, overseeing the garden, and tending the livestock. All work at the furnace was heavy work. Injuries were frequent and men's life spans were short. In most cases the children went to furnace school in their early years. In the case of boys, once they reached thirteen or fourteen they usually quit school and joined their fathers working at the furnace.
The furnace community was like an island in a sea of timber and barren earth. A typical furnace community was entirely self sustaining with a population of 200 - 400 people living in these little towns, depending on each other to a large extent. When visiting Buckeye Furnace, at first glance it appears to be located in an enchanted setting. Back in the time of its operation things looked much different. Old photographs taken of several furnace communities reveal a collection of buildings and homes appearing to be located in a moonscape-like setting. The forests were gone, removed for fuel. The resulting landscape was desolate.
To make ends meet raising a garden and livestock was necessary as the wages were very meager. The workers and their families were literally without contact with other towns. That, and the fact that furnace companies didn't use regular money to pay their workers, discouraged furnace citizens travel anywhere . The money the company printed, called "script", was what workers collected each payday. Script was only recognized at the furnace where it was issued.
At the company store, everything it took for a family to live was stocked and sold at inflated prices. Workers had to pay rent as well. In many cases, though a man worked 30 days out of 30 days, by the time he paid his monthly rent and bought the groceries and goods needed, he was broke. This practice was a form of captive lifestyle, making the furnace men and their families indentured workers. This same concept was put into use by owners of other isolated workers communities such as coalmine owners. We remember a popular workers' song lamenting "I owe my soul to the company store."
It is safe to say the folks of HD&Co. were aware that the railroad was soon going to be constructed to serve Jackson County, as records show that Buckeye Furnace was one of twenty-one furnaces constructed in the HRIR during the 1850's. By the middle of the 1850's, rail shipping was in place allowing the furnace owners to ship their iron south to the Ohio River and west to Cincinnati or east to Pennsylvania. Although there was no boom in production, owners were setting on the brink of orders for iron that would outstrip their capacity for production, for as the 1850's came to an end, the steady friction between the northern and the southern states increased. This led to the greatest struggle in America's history. When the Civil War began in 1861 neither the North or South knew how intense it would be or how long it would last. It didn't take long, however, for both sides to see that a prolonged struggle was upon them and both sides began to arm in earnest.
In 1862, HD&Co. sold Buckeye Furnace to H.S. Bundy and H.F. Austin for fifty-thousand dollars. It was a fantastic windfall for Bundy and Austin. Orders from the U.S. Government meant that the tires were kept going around the clock, twelve months a year, with one story written that the iron pigs were loaded as soon as they cooled enough to be firm. The wagon-owners became distressed with this practice since their wagon beds hauling the still hot iron to the rail-sidings, caught fire. The demand for iron only increased throughout the Civil War.
In 1864, Buckeye Furnace was sold to Terry Austin & Company who took over in this very busy period of charcoal iron production. Stories exist about the legendary qualities of iron from this region during this time. Jefferson Furnace near Oak Hill is said to have produced the iron that was used to produce the armor plate that sheathed the Union Ironclad ship, the Monitor. Likewise the giant mortar ,"The Swamp-Angel", was cast from the same iron. How many rifle and cannon barrels were cast from iron, made at these furnaces, can only be guessed.
At the close of the Civil War, America found itself in an expansion age with railroads crossing the nation, and other needs for iron stimulated the iron industry. One thing that had been learned from the Civil War was that iron production using the old charcoal method was limited and simply not going to do the job. The amount of timber being cut was immense and in short order would be exhausted.
In 1867, Buckeye Furnace Company took control of operations. This company was owned by Eben Jones, John D. Davis, L. T. Hughes, and Dr. S. Williams, all Welshmen, and mostly the proprietors of Jefferson Furnace. This is the period when an all new method of iron making was employed. This method made use of "coke" to provide the fuel to produce iron. Coke comes from coal that is roasted to remove all its impurities, and with the use of coke, furnaces could be made much bigger. Soon a coke fired furnace produced as much iron in a day as the older charcoal furnace could produce in a month. With this revelation "the handwriting was on the wall." For a time this new type of iron was suspect of equaling charcoal iron's quality, but it proved to be on a par with charcoal iron. With increased orders for iron, charcoal furnace companies began to be bypassed. One by one charcoal iron furnaces ceased production. Buckeye Furnace once again was sold, this time to F. E. Hinckley of Chicago, Illinois in 1890, who would retain ownership for the next twenty-eight years. Buckeye Furnace made its final blast in 1894.
Like other abandoned furnace communities it simply faded away, the buildings decaying and collapsing. Homes were abandoned as families move on to make a living. All too soon brush and weeds reclaimed the land. However, one man, Frank Morrow from the industrialist family of the same name from Wellston, decided he would undertake saving at least one example of this era in Jackson County's history for its citizens. The family had holdings in that part of the county where Buckeye Furnace was located. Morrow created a Jackson County Historical Society in 1934-35. With this organization in place, he turned over two hundred and seventy acres which included the former Buckeye Furnace community to the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Ohio Historical Society.) Although he envisioned restoring the furnace complex, his dream did not materialize.
In the late 1960's, with Jackson County's own James A. Rhodes in office as Ohio's Governor, and urgings from the Morrow family, the rebirth of Buckeye Furnace was realized. Reconstruction of the furnace site seen today was completed in 1972. The work was done by the A. J. Stockmeister Company of Jackson, Ohio with project foreman George Loomis overseeing the construction. The furnace opened shortly after completion. The site remained open until the 1990's when cutbacks within the Ohio Historical Society's budget forced the park's closing.
In 2001, in a joint effort, the Jackson Historical Society and the Wellston Historical Association opened the park on weekends during September and October, culminating with a "Buckeye Furnace Day." Even though it rained the first part of the day, the afternoon brought out one hundred and twenty three people who ate, heard discussions about the furnace and toured the furnace grounds.
In 2007, an agreement was signed between the Ohio Historical Society and the Jackson Historical Society allowing them to manage the 270 acre State Memorial. The JHS formed a separate corporation, Friends of Buckeye Furnace, Inc., to oversee the management of the site. Many events and ides have been initiated and are being done as of this writing. The Jackson Historical Society is excited about the possibilities and are looking forward to a long relationship with the Ohio Historical Society.