Iron Men?

E.J. Swatsell, Tim Massey, and R.J. Wilkerson in front of what is left of the once-busy Pottsdale Furnace on Cove Creek.

If you happen to be into Marvel Comics you are familiar with Iron Man. Iron Man was made into a couple interesting movies. Building a robotic suit which will make a person a superhuman is not that farfetched in today’s technological world.

In fact, Korean car maker Hyundai has created a robotic exoskeleton that the company says is comparable to the famous “Iron Man” suit. The automaker showed off its exoskeleton prototype on its Korean blog in 2016. This is a robot with a human inside. Wouldn’t it be easier to just have a robot?

Greene County had its own Iron Man long before Marvel ever thought up the idea. Our Iron Man is not wearing an exoskeleton, but he is encased in iron. I have wanted to go trailing the past for Greene County’s Iron Man for several years.

Last fall I talked good friend R.J. Wilkerson into accompanying me into the wilds of the unknown along Cove Creek in southern Greene County. We went in search of the Iron Man and thanks to some nice folks at a nearby home, we were close to finding him. Due to the knee-deep grass and weeds we gave up the exercise to come back when all the green had been killed back by frost.

Before delving into the adventure, I should give some background on our Iron Man and how he came to be. Following the Civil War there was a great demand for iron. We have all heard about the scallywags and carpet baggers that came south to take advantage of the war-ravaged south. That is very true, although some writers want to now say they came to help out the poor southerners.

Northern corporations saw an opportunity to take advantage of cheap labor and to rape the south of its resources. They had money and that was something the south was suddenly without. In our region they discovered an abundance of iron ore. The ore had to be mined, cooked into a molten mass and the impurities which rose to the top skimmed off. It was a hot, dangerous undertaking.

In early 1869 a New York company calling itself the New York and East Tennessee Iron Co. located in southern Greene County. There were large deposits of iron ore along the base of the mountains and they were here to take advantage of it. All those sons of Civil War soldiers who had been too young to fight were now of prime working age. A dollar in their pocket was something they only dreamed about and now their time had come.

The New Yorkers leased the land of George Sexton, totaling 3,200 acres. It was the land grant of my Revolutionary War ancestor John Sexton. Cousin Reece Sexton in Knoxville and I have often wondered who was getting one over on who, because Sexton leased the ore company 5,000 acres. He either leased them 1,800 more acres than he owned or included the land owned by his cousins in the deal. The company did own over 400 acres where the furnace and its supporting buildings were located.

Two furnaces were erected. So you will know, these were also known as a bloomery. That name came to be because the impurities rising to the top were colorful, like flowers blooming. Now you will know a bloomery was not a place that made peoples underdrawers.

The first was the larger one and was built of large carved limestone blocks reinforced by iron. It was carved and assembled in New York, taken down and moved to an area off the Kelly Gap Road on Back Creek. This area became the town of Hayesville. It had a schoolhouse, a hotel, a company store with post office, bunk houses, a church, houses, its own railroad, a large stable, barns, and a cemetery which has about 70 graves, most unmarked. Most of these are those that lost their lives working for the ore company.

The original superintendent of the operation, a Mr. Gleason, estimated the cost of the operation at $110,000. The mountain folks could buy all sort of items they had never before had access to at the company store. The only catch was they only accepted their own script, and one could only get it by working for the New York and East Tennessee Iron Co.

Mountain children could get an education at the school like they had only dreamed of before. The catch was that one parent had to work for the New York and East Tennessee Iron Co. Oh yes, they would have to pay a tax for each child enrolled in the school. Not to Greene County, but to the New York and East Tennessee Iron Co. You might recall that old song with the lyric: “St. Peter when you call me I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” In this case the soul would be owed to the New York and East Tennessee Iron Co.

Men who wanted to attend church with the family could choose either the morning or evening service, but not both. They had to make up the time they missed at work that day. They were expected to tithe 10% which was removed from everyone’s paycheck whether he attended church or not. The tithes went not to God, but to the New York and East Tennessee Iron Co.

The New York and East Tennessee Iron Co. was not a respecter of the sabbath and was the first company in East Tennessee to require a seven-day work week. In fact, the company worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was the nature of making pig iron from iron ore. The fires had to be kept burning to be turned to charcoal which kept the kettle at a temperature to melt iron.

Men were employed cutting wood around the clock working in 12 hour shifts. They could not stop for bad weather, illness, anything. Miners worked in 12 hours shifts digging the ore from the mountainside. The work required a lot of horse and mule teams and work never stopped. People were hauling wood and iron ore continually. The waste (slag) skimmed off the melted ore had to be removed, cooled and hauled off. There were no easy jobs, it was all hot and dangerous. Fire pits constantly burned wood into charcoal and the hot coals moved beneath the cauldron.

The work was hot, and hot tempers often flared. One hot-tempered Irishman named Pinkney Turner was described as a big man of 225 pounds who used a 16-pound hammer to crush limestone. Turner’s mouth was as big as he and one day a coworker pulled out a gun and shot him in it. Work never stopped and a couple men quickly put him in a prebuilt box before he was completely dead, placed it on an oxcart, took him to the cemetery, lowered him in an already dug hole and went back to work.

One John Stafford, a bookkeeper, carried a large silver pearl-handled revolver on his belt. When a fight broke out he would loan it to the man getting whipped, or to the one he thought should come out on top so the fight could end quickly and all could return to work. It was his pistol that did in Pink Turner.

The company opened a second lower furnace on Cove Creek called the Pottsdale Furnace. This one was smaller and the limestone blocks were quarried, cut and placed by local stone masons. The lower furnace was where all the ruffians, hotheads, brawlers, drunks, outlaws, jailbirds and thieves — as well as black and Irish employees — were sent to work. If you got into a scrape at Hayesville or they didn’t like your looks, you were sent down to Pottsdale. It had a company store, a barracks, and office. My ancestor Benjamin Shipley moved down from Sullivan County to work there as a supervisor. He had a reputation for being “rough on rough necks.” He lived halfway between the two furnaces and he remained there after the iron company left the area.

I had been to the upper Hayesville furnace, which is relatively intact, but had not been to the lower Pottsdale Furnace. It is not an easy place to access, and I was excited to see what remained. The old furnace itself, not being cut and assembled as the upper one was, has mostly collapsed in on itself. It was a fraction of the size of the upper furnace, but no less important in its day.

Now to the Iron Man. As the story goes, two men at the lower furnace got into a scrape. One of them was either thrown or fell into the kettle of molten iron ore. The entire batch was taken to a nearby hole and poured in it. Jim Crum, who owned the property in later years, would show people what he called his “Iron Man.” There is a picture in Goldene Burgner’s book “The Southside” from 50 years ago of the so-called Iron Man. My opinion is that if you close both eyes it may resemble a man.

Given the story is true, a human body falling into a kettle of molten iron would have likely vaporized almost immediately. Pig Iron was not pure and had to be shipped to New York for refinement. I tend to think the man in charge would have poured the iron into bars and let it go. There was no price on human life at the lower furnace so I just really cannot see them pouring out what would amount to thousands of dollars in pig iron.

R.J. and I went back this spring along with E.J. Swatsell. It was not hard to identify locations mentioned in early articles about the site. We found where a brick building had been, most of the brick long gone. It was easy to identify where the roads were. There were so many cinders produced that a nearby hill with roads going up and down was named cinder hill. When R.J. and I were there last fall, we could hear the cinders crunching beneath our feet as we walked. The blue, glassy slag from the impurities cooked from the ore are to be found in abundance along the creek at both locations.

Going by old descriptions of where the Iron Man was located, we are fairly sure we found him. With over 50 years of sediment and tree growth covering it, it was hard to be sure. We did find a hard place with a protruding rounded part like the old photos identifying the Iron Man. We did not want to dig or disturb the location, we just pulled back 6 inches of accumulated sediment.

I am satisfied we found him, or what has been identified as the Iron Man. The question that may never be answered is whether there is really a body encased in that mass of iron, or is this somebody’s tale that was passed down for several years? If he is there, it is a grave and he should be allowed to rest in peace.

I could find no newspaper trail of the story. The one about Pink Turner did make the paper, but not until 1943, 70 years later. There was one murder at the Hayesville Furnace that did make the papers. It produced the trial of the century in Greeneville. That will be a later article.

The New York and East Tennessee Iron Co. was gone by 1888. Refining ore in the north became more profitable, and the southern operations proved too costly. They sold off what could be moved, leaving the two stone ovens as standing monuments, testaments in time that they were here. The clear-cut mountains healed, and new growth came. The mines filled in and were overtaken by vegetation. The lower furnace is slowly disappearing back into the mountain and will soon be only a memory.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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