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Collecting Antique Cast Iron Cookware

By Chuck Neese,  Pegram TN.

If you’ve driven through downtown Franklin TN, you probably noticed the 1859 Williamson County Courthouse with its four impressive white columns. There is an interesting story behind those old columns: #1, they are made of cast iron; #2, the iron ore was mined in Williamson County;  #3, the ore was smelt in Williamson Co. at the Caney Fork Furnace near Fairview.  The Caney Fork Furnace is still standing and visible from Caney Fork Rd in the Fernvale community.  You can also visit stone, charcoal fired, iron furnaces at Cumberland Furnace, The Narrows of The Harpeth, Bucksnort and other locations on the Western Highland Rim.

Iron ore lies just under the topsoil in a 40 mile-wide seam running north to south through Western KY and Western Middle TN.  Mid South iron making goes back to 1793 when James Robertson built an iron furnace on those ore deposits at Cumberland Furnace. But most Highland Rim furnaces were cold by the 1880’s.

These furnaces produced “pig iron”, so called because the molds used to cast ingots or “pigs” resembled a mama sow and her litter of piglets. The pig iron was sold to local foundries where it was cast into items like cookware and wood burning stoves. Cast iron, with its high carbon and silica content, is brittle and will crack when hit or overheated. Wrought iron is made by heating & pounding pig iron to remove impurities. This process gave wrought iron a more malleable quality than cast iron, allowing it to be bent and shaped and was used for farming and fireplace tools, horseshoes and hinges.

Phillips & Buttorff Hardware (P&B Mfg).in Nashville cast a complete line of cookware for the hearth and stove, as did Fair, Day & D. Kline of Knoxville, the Dixie Foundry and the Cleveland Stove Works, both of Cleveland TN.  Lodge Cast Iron of South Pittsburg TN is still making cast iron cookware and has since 1896.

Collector favorites include Southern cast iron cookware items like the “spider”: a skillet balanced on three legs and sportin’ a rattail handle. The legs elevated the skillet so that hot coals could be pushed under to cook from the bottom.  The spider sometimes had a cover surrounded by a high rim. Coals could be heaped on the cover to heat the topside. The Dutch oven is also based on the top heat /bottom heat idea, but it was deeper and wider than the spider and has no handle.  Another favorite piece of iron hearth cookware is the gypsy kettle. The bulbous shaped body has a flared opening and two “ears” that anchored a wrought iron pothook that could be swung on a fireplace crane. Collecting these examples of hearth cookware is interesting, but removing a hundred years of crusty grease can require a lot of sweat and tears. Cast iron collector and flea market dealer Ken Burris of Rogersville AL. began collecting and selling his antique cookware some 30 years ago. He tried everything to clean his old cast iron. He scraped and wire brushed. He even tried a blowtorch but the cooked-on grease hung tough. When a flea market customer questioned his method of cleaning, Ken told of his frustrating attempts. The customer casually suggested this formula:

A. one can of Red Devil Lye to 2 gallons of water

B. mix in a PLASTIC garbage pail  (Ken has  40 gallons of lye solution that he keeps in a plastic barrel and reuses over and over)

C. completely submerse crusty pot for 10 days

D. rinse pot and dry

E. buff with wire wheel on bench grinder or electric drill (this removes the softened crust and rust and don’t worry about stiffness of the wire wheel, it won’t scratch cast iron)

F. rinse and dry

G. warm pot in oven, then apply liberal coat of pork lard

H. cook pot in 200 degree oven for 1 hour pot and towel on mineral oil (not vegetable oil) for rust protection.

Fireplace cooking remained common in the rural South till the 1920’s so interesting pieces of hearth cookware still exist. I have stumbled across several nice pieces in antique malls across Tennessee, Kentucky and North Alabama. I look for pots with “ears” and  “legs” (these usually denote age). Dutch oven lids will sometimes carry the maker’s name. Gypsy pots and other large kettles seldom carried foundry names but they are not hard to find across the Southeast. Heck, just travel the back roads of the Mid South….. you can find truckloads of old cook &  wash kettles hanging from tripods, drilled, painted white and filled with petunias.

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