Ironton Resident Looks Back To Furnace Days

Ironton Resident Looks Back To Furnace Days

Charles Sheppard Last of Blowers

Submitted by Peggy A. Wells


        The phrase, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” must have had more than the usual meaning to young Charles Sheppard as he watched the billowing clouds of smoke pour out of the thriving charcoal furnaces, dotting the Lawrence county area in the golden era called the “Iron Age.”

        The same Charles Sheppard, 88 years young, sat back in his chair this week and told us, with a trace of pride in his voice, how he used to identify the various furnace operations by merely looking at the smoke curling from the towering stacks. The operation of the famous furnaces, which earned Ironton its name, flooded back through those colorful days as we sat listening to Mr. Sheppard’s reminiscing of the days of the Pine Grove, Hecla, Bloom and Big Etna furnaces.

        A native of Haverhill, Mr. Sheppard, true to conditions of his day, went to work at the age of 12 and in 1946, after serving as watchman at the city reservoir, he called it a day and retired to the home fires of his comfortable abode at 2015 north Second street, there to enjoy a rest after 74 years of work, much of it in the furnace area.

        Mr. Sheppard was united in marriage to Christine Newman, a native of Germany, on Nov. 16, 1882, and they have lived and worked in the atmosphere of charcoal and pig iron through the years. Now, with his beloved wife, Mr. Sheppard lives the life of ease he has so richly deserved.

        We were interested in the operation of a charcoal furnace as this phase of industry is a thing of mystery to men today, and Mr. Sheppard was only too glad to oblige. With a keenness of mind, Mr. Sheppard rivaled many a college professor as he drew a graphic picture of the furnace technique.

        Charcoal furnaces, resembling the shape of inverted milk bottles, were treated first with a load of charcoal, then a buggy of ore was poured on top the charcoal. Regulated by flanged sides, the charcoal settled into the narrow end of the furnace interior. Air was forced in through a vent in the lower part of the furnace with temperature hitting about 800 degrees. Mr. Sheppard said the ideal ratio for good iron was 1200 pounds of charcoal to 600 pounds of ore.

        Transported to the furnaces, in buggies, it was the job of the blower to supervise unloading of the cargo. Mr. Sheppard was a blower for many of his years as a furnace man and is the last member of that vanishing art. He related how this job of blowing at the furnace was a 24-hour job and required the constant attention of a furnace man.


It Cost Less

        Mrs. Sheppard reminded of the cheaper economic system in the furnace days. Top wages of two dollars a day and $75 a month granted furnace families just as many necessities as high-bracket bread winners take home today. With their house provided for, and a garden plot, it took less to raise a family.

        Mrs. Sheppard is particularly fond of her family, Mrs. Joe Kinkaid of 2011 north Second street and Miss Lily Sheppard, employed at Hugger’s. She was quick to state that stores, managed by furnace companies, were their source of supply and that on payday, scrip was given in place of money, if families wanted to go to town, the scrip was exchanged for greenbacks. Otherwise, all bartering at company stores was done with script.

        We asked Mr. Sheppard if he knew of any of the famous names of the iron era, and he told us that Charles and Albert Campbell, sons of John Campbell, roomed at the Sheppard home when Mr. Sheppard was blowing for the Hecla furnace. He worked with Jim Bird, famous iron man, at Hecla. Mr. Sheppard later took over the job of foreman at Big Etna furnace and held this position for 17 years.

        Furnace work was an all-week job, with the fires going down only from Saturday midnight to Sunday night. This was the only free time offered to the men. The rest of the week was full one for the five-man crew, tending fires. Proof of the production was given by Mr. Sheppard who said that an average day at Pine Grove netted 18 to 20 tons of iron.

        Of interest to this modern age were the classifications of iron, according to furnace heat. Diminishing intensity of the fires gave four types of iron, from large grains to white iron, which was made while the furnace was cool.

        In the home they built 50 years ago, the Sheppard’s live a normal life with their collie dog “Gypsy”. Mrs. Sheppard says “Gypsy” is a one-family dog and won’t make up with strangers. Mrs. Sheppard who is 85, has been bothered with attacks of arthritis and can’t do the things she would like to do. A member of the Presbyterian church, she attends services when she can.

        Mr. Sheppard loves to putter around the house and has a large garden that takes a great deal of his time. In fact, he is ready to admit that it’s getting beyond him what with so much grass to cut. In his younger days he was quite a fiddler at square dances and just the other day, tucked a borrowed fiddle under his chin and rattled off a few hoe-downs with a neighboring store keeper, a banjo addict.

        With a full life behind him, Mr. Sheppard enjoys memory of those fabulous days in which he played a part. One of the pioneers in the Ohio Valley iron industry, Mr. Sheppard can look back with satisfaction on a life well-spent and look forward to a well-deserved rest with his mate of 67 years.

Ironton Evening Tribune, February 12, 1949, Saturday.