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Location: Elverson, PA
Date Built: 1770
Style: Colonial Ironmaster Mansion
On Saturday, December the 4th, Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site held its annual Iron Plantation Christmas. Today the furnace was quiet prior to the Christmas Holidays. However, during Christmas when the furnace was operating in the nineteenth century, Christmas was just another work day.
Ironmaster's Mansion built in three stages beginning in 1770
Hopewell Village was a small self-sustaining village in colonial times which was built around a cold-blast, charcoal-burning iron furnace. The community life was in some respects similar to that of the small feudal manors of medieval Europe and was largely self-sustaining. Little had changed of the village from colonial times up through most of the nineteenth century.
The first owner of Hopewell Furnace was Colonel Marcus (Mark) Bird (January 2, 1738/9-1812), who was a successful ironmaster, politician, and farmer. During the Revolutionary War, Mark Bird was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Second Battalion of the Berks County Militia. He provided at his own expense uniforms and provisions for 300 local men. His foundry, Hopewell Furnace, along with his other property, the Birdsboro Iron Works, supplied armaments, cannon shell and shot to the Continental Army He also owned gristmill, sawmills, slitting mill, and nail works in Berks, Cumberland, Bucks, Montgomery and York Counties. Under Bird's management at the foundry, Hopewell Furnace cast 115 cannons for the Navy.
The Cast House where moulder cast iron into stove plates and other products
During the Revolutionary War, Colonel Bird was given the impossible order of getting food to General Washington's starving troops at Valley Forge. This task General Mifflin had failed to do earlier. Colonel Bird managed to float 1,000 barrels of flour from his own water grist mills in Birdsboro which were stored in Reading down the Schuylkill River in the dead of winter.
In 1772 Bird was the highest taxpayer in Berks County. Mark Bird also built Seyfert Forge. The Birdsboro forges eventually came under his control, along with a slitting mill. His inventory in 1779 was listed as:
10,883 acres of land, 1 furnace, 2 forges and two-thirds interest in Spring Forge, 1 slitting mill, 1 saw mill, 2 pleasure carriages, 28 horses, 30 working oxen, 18 horned cattle, 12 negroes, 1 servant, and £3,767 cash.
In 1776, Bird was elected a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and of the Provincial Convention of 1776. He was also appointed a Judge of the Berks County Court.
Most records don't exist of the production of pig iron from colonial times. However, Hopewell most likely had a production capacity of 700 tons per year prior to 1789. There is record in 1783 that Hopewell produced 749-1/2 tons of pig iron and finished castings. Some of the items produced with pig iron were stoves, hammers, anvils, pots and kettles.
Pastoral Scene at Hopewell. The blacksmith shop is in the background
The total number of blacksmiths, moulders, founders, colliers, clerks, and teamsters employed was probably less than fifty. The workmen were both freemen, indentured servants, and slaves. In fact, Colonel Bird was the largest slave owner in the area with fourteen slaves at one time. .Although these slaves received equal pay as the whites for their working profession. One of those slaves, Job Lee, held the third highest position for three years at Hopewell. He was in charge of making sure the furnace stayed active by adding iron ore, charcoal, and limestone. He was rewarded by staying in the Ironmaster's Mansion. It is thought through recent research that Hopewell was a stopping point for the Underground Railroad. Records revealed that some stayed only for a few months, perhaps earning money to travel north.
Inside the blacksmith shop
A clear-cut paternalistic hierarchy did exist within the village society. The ironmaster sat at the top of that social class The furnace clerk was second only to the ironmaster in importance. He kept the books, and acted as paymaster along with managing the company store. The clerk managed the furnace in absence of the ironmaster and often lived in the ironmaster's mansion.
The founder who was responsible for the operation of the furnace was the most important man in the community. It was his job to make sure of the efficiency of the furnace and to act as quality control manager. He was responsible for the iron workers who labored in twelve hour shifts. The job as moulders and colliers was a skilled position which paid higher than furnace workers or supporting jobs as a woodcutter blacksmith, or household positions. The position of a moulder which did the actual job of casting iron paid more than the founder. Fillers who put the raw materials in the furnace and gutterman who controlled the liquid iron as it flowed from the inside of the furnace had the most dangerous jobs and received less pay than the skilled workmen. Blacksmiths, millwrights and wheelwrights were also essential in the operation of Hopewell Village.
Tunnel Head inside the Cast House
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, a flood on Hay Creek ruined much of his iron works and the the depression that ensued began Colonel Bird's financial troubles. Like so many others, Bird fell into the category of Revolutionary War veteran that was not reimbursed by the newly formed government. In 1778 and 1780, there were orders issued by the Continental Congress to reimburse Bird sums of $50,000 and $125,691. It is obvious Bird was never able to collect on these orders. By 1780-1781 part of the ironworks was out of operation completely. Tax records from 1782-1784 showed Bird pay one quarter of the taxes he paid when the furnace was fully in operation. Between April 8 and September 14, 1784, only 196 tons of pig iron and 14-1/2 tons of finished castings were produced, and by 1785 there is record of only 134 tons of pig iron and 30-1/2 tons of finished castings.
On September 19, 1783, the Continental Congress received a memorial from Colonel Bird seeking partial payment from the government by taking ownership of the Great Chain which was stretched across the Hudson River at West Point to obstruct British navigation. His request was denied on September 29, 1783:
On the report of a committee, consisting of M.Y. [Abraham] Clark, M.V. [Thomas] Fitzsimmons and M.v. [Benjamin] Hawkins, to whom was referred a memorial of Mark Bird, requesting that the chain made for the defence of Hudson's river, may be delivered to him at a reasonable price:
By 1784 it was necessary for Bird to borrow 200,000 Spanish Milled Dollars from John Nixon, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, on a mortgage in which he lists Birdsborough ironworks Hopewell Furnace, and 8,000 acres of land. By 1786 it was necessary for Bird to transfer the property to Nixon who then put the property up for sale in 1988. Bird then moved to North Carolina where he pursued iron interests in High Shoals, North Carolina and Rocky River and Whitaker in South Carolina.
Two colonial men talking outside of the blacksmith shop, Notice the clay tiles on the roof of the shop. When the shop caught on fire, some of the tiles needed replaced. 200 years later the same mold was found to make new tiles to replicate the old tiles
Hopewell Furnace was transferred to Cadwallader Morris and James Old who were both notable ironmasters. Cadwallader's brother, Benjamin Morris took over the deed in 1791 but by 1793 the property was returned to James Old with Morris holding the mortgage. Hopewell Furnace was operated under the name of James Old & Co. In the next few years the furnace realized some recovery but Old was not able to make payments. By 1800, Old gave the title to Benjamin Morris who then sold it for £10,000 to Matthew Brooke Jr. of Berks County and his brother, Thomas Brooke of Montgomery County along with their brother-in-law, Daniel Buckley of Lancaster County.
Hopewell Furnace could not turn a profit for the new ownership for the next eight years. The furnace shut down operations in 1808 due to the trade embargo and legal issues with William Penn's heirs over land grants. The furnace remained idle for eight years until Clement Brooke, the son of Matthew, became ironmaster.
Outside of a tenant house which was decorated to reflect the year 1795
Clement began his iron career at the age of 16 in 1804 as assistant clerk at Hopewell Furnace. He worked part time supervising the filing of the blast furnace. He became a clerk at the age of 20. Eventually he became caretaker of the property and managed the stamping mill. His salary as ironmaster was $600 a year and free living in the ironmaster's mansion. In 1827 he became part owner.
The Federal Government improved transportation substantially on roads and turnpikes and the Canal Era emerged which accelerated the shipping of products. After the War of 1812, Congress enacted protective tariffs to help industries from foreign competition. With the improvements and producing more castings and less pig iron, Clement was able to produce a substantial profit.
Improvements were made to the furnace and greater capacity was achieved when the furnace was completely rebuilt in 1828. It was Clement who found new markets for his castings, purchased additional acres, and increased his labor force that made the years between 1816 and 1849 the most lucrative in the furnace's history. In the 1820's and 1830's, Hopewell employed more than 200 people. In 1828, the furnace was in operation for 445 days and produced 1,169 tons of mixed castings. Hopewell stoves and fireplaces were being supplied to the Philadelphia market. Castings were producing kettles, pots, pans, waffle irons, corn shelling machines, machinery castings, and many other products. Cell blocks were installed at the Eastern State Penitentiary from the iron at Hopewell.
Coal loaded in a coal car
The decline if the Hopewell Furnace began with a five year depression which started in 1837. The introduction of the hot blast method in the smelting of iron in the following year, making possible the substitution of coke for charcoal accelerated the end of the charcoal burning furnace. The colonial era of the mighty iron forge industry was coming to an end. Hopewell eventually was blown out for the last time in 1883 and was one of the last cold-blast charcoal burning furnaces. It sustained 113 years of activity.
The property remained a summer home for descendants of the Brooke family, the last owners of the furnace, until 1935 when it was sold to the federal government for $98,301 for use in the CCC program. Due to the independent decisions by the CCC workers Hopewell was restored and not torn down as they were instructed to do. Hopewell Village was established as a National Historic Site in 1938 and became the first site to commemorate our industrial history. By 1985 the name was changed to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.
Der Belsnickel sneaking in the Cast House prior to the children arriving
During the operation of Hopewell Furnace in the nineteenth century few gifts were given. The village store did not have shelves stocked with special Christmas items. However, some luxury foods were available such as sugar, coffee, tea, and cranberries. Molasses or sugar cakes shaped into designs may have been given to children.
During colonial times, there was a strong sense of community in the Hopewell Village. Clement Brooke believed that improving the worker's conditions would improve the efficiency of the worker. The workers held entertainments. went fishing, skating, sleighing And this past Saturday that strong sense of community was evident with the reenactors who represented Hopewell Village from years past. Christmas's past were observed separately within each of the buildings. In Tenant House II, decorations were simple was they would have appeared in 1795. Greens and dried berries were brought into the house. Modest presents were offered exclusively by the wealthy to the workers of the furnace.
A young colonial lady brushes her loving horse
In the Cast House, Der Belsnickel arrived to visit with everyone as he would have done in 1835. The Hopewell Furnace is located in the Cast House. The Office/Store Building was a representation of the hub of the village in 1855. Consumables were available for sale for the workers at Hopewell, as well as the visitors this day.
The Boarding House was representative of the year 1865 when many of the single men worked at the furnace. Many men went off to war during the Civil War, but Hopewell enjoyed prosperity during the iron demand that the war produced. Friends and family celebrated the return of the veterans from the War.
A gentleman from 1865 smoking his pipe and enjoying the fire inside the Boarding House
The Ironmaster's Mansion was decorated in the Victorian style of 1875. Flutists Rachael Smith and Alannah Sellmen were playing Christmas songs, The mansion was originally built in three stages, the first stage beginning 1770-1800. It was remodeled as late as 1870.
Inside the Big House or Ironmaster's Mansion which was decorated for Christmas in the 1875 tradition. Flutists Alannah Sellman and Rachael Smith played Christmas music
Hopewell Furnace National Historical Site is Located off Route 345 near French Creek State Park and below the town of Birdsboro. Visit their website for the hours of operation and special events.
Source: Text and photos by Bryan Wright
Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site
Belsnickels: Colonial Traditions Borrowed
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