Often the story of one family or one business isn’t found in history books, but rather in faded newspaper clippings and family diaries.
That’s the case with the Blacklock Foundry and the Lodge family that started it in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, in 1896. In a brief diary entry on Thursday, May 19, 1910, Elizabeth Lodge, known to her family as Lizzie, tells the story of the foundry’s fate. Just shortly after midnight, a fire raged through the building, burning it to the ground. Without embellishment or fanfare, Lizzie noted the tragedy in her diary. “Foundry burned down at 12:30 this morning.” Her husband, Joseph, who had been away on business, made his way home as quickly as he could. By the time he reached South Pittsburg the next day, only ashes remained.
Newspaper accounts of the fire at the Blacklock Foundry from the Sequachee Valley News revealed that the fire started from the cupola, a cylindrical furnace for melting iron, and since the buildings were made of wood, they burned quickly. “Insurance was carried, hardly enough to give full value on equipment,” the article read. “It is not known whether they will be rebuilt or not.” The writer obviously didn’t know the mettle of Joseph Lodge.
The couple was faced with a decision—rebuild or move on. For Joseph and Lizzie, it wasn’t a difficult choice. Lizzie had come to South Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 33 years before as Joseph’s bride, and they had built a life together in Tennessee. Joseph had worked for the Southern States Coal Iron and Land Company and then other iron companies, learning the business. He had built the couple a four-room house on Magnolia Avenue, which they enlarged as their family grew. Their daughter Edith was born in 1881, and son Leslie followed in 1883. The growing Lodge family quickly became pillars of the local Episcopal Church, and Joseph Lodge developed a lasting friendship with its minister, Joseph Hayton Blacklock.
In fact, their friendship was so strong that when Joseph Lodge decided to start his own cast-iron foundry in 1896, he named his new business after his long-time friend, Reverend Blacklock. But as we know from Lizzie’s diary, those dreams went up in smoke in May of 1910. However, that wasn’t the end of Joseph Lodge’s story.
Within a few months of the fire, Joseph had purchased a meadow outside of town for $6,000 and began building a new foundry, reorganizing the business as Lodge Manufacturing Company. A little more than three months later, Lizzie noted in her diary that the first castings were poured on August 26, 1910. By October, the foundry was up and running at full capacity. Over the next 107 years, Joseph and Lizzie’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren went on to build the business into one of the largest cast-iron foundries in America. Only a few people— Lodge family members and hard-core cast-iron collectors—know the story of that first foundry at the corner of Cedar Avenue and First Street.
For Carolyn Millhiser and her cousin Bob Kellermann, the story of the Blacklock Foundry is part of their family history. Joseph Lodge’s daughter, Edith Lodge Kellermann, was their grandmother, and both of their fathers played a role in running the company beginning in the 1930s. “We count the beginning of our company from 1896 when Blacklock was founded,” explains Bob, who has worked for Lodge for the past 48 years. “The 1910 foundry was just a name change.”
Carolyn, who was born in 1940, recalls that people in South Pittsburgh continued to refer to the foundry by its former name for decades afterward. “Even though it was then Lodge Manufacturing, they called it The Blacklock,” she remembers. “The name just stuck.”
Carolyn treasures the few Blacklock pieces she has managed to collect since 1998, when she and her husband moved back to the town where she grew up. Among her collection is a footed deep skillet with a cracked lid and a heavy tailor’s iron, complete with a resting tray called a “goose.” Most family members must scrounge for their vintage Blacklock iron at flea markets and junk shops along with other collectors, because the company didn’t archive examples of what they had made over the years. “For 48 years I’ve been trying to grow our brand and introduce new products,” explains her cousin Bob, who retired as CEO emeritus of Lodge at the end of 2017. “I didn’t look back because I was always looking ahead.”
WE COUNT THE BEGINNING OF OUR COMPANY FROM 1896 WHEN BLACKLOCK WAS FOUNDED. THE 1910 FOUNDARY WAS JUST A NAME CHANGE:
–BOB KELLERMANN, former Lodge Manufacturing CEO
For serious cast-iron collectors such as Grady Britt and Harold Henry, the Blacklock story is just the beginning of the Lodge story. Both men have a special affinity for Lodge cast iron. Their collections number in the hundreds, if not the thousands, of pieces. “The story of Lodge, from its beginning in 1896 up to now, is a fabulous story,” Harold Henry points out. “It’s the story of an American company and an American family.”
Identifying pieces of Blacklock is not always easy, they say. Some pieces, like teakettles, Dutch ovens, and sad irons, have the name emblazoned on the lid or handle. But other pieces, such as skillets, have few identifying characteristics. The heat ring on Blacklock skillets is usually close to the bottom’s edge, unlike later Lodge skillets. And they usually have a large two-letter molder’s mark, almost an inch tall, that was applied to the skillets after they were shaken out of the mold. But so do some early Lodge skillets. And therein lies the conundrum for collectors: Is it Blacklock or early Lodge?
The newspaper account of the 1896 fire reveals that many of Blacklock’s patterns, which were made of wood, were lost in the fire. But since the Lodge foundry was up and running so quickly after the fire, Harold Henry speculates that Joseph Lodge might have used existing Blacklock skillets as patterns for the first Lodge skillets. “Whether a piece is Blacklock or Lodge is very difficult to pinpoint,” he says. “It’s not simple to draw that line. No one knows for sure.”
Harold’s friend Grady Britt is not so forgiving. According to Grady, the only way you can say that a piece of early cast-iron is definitely Blacklock is if it carries the Blacklock name. “That’s my bias,” he explains. “Part of that is there are no patents for Blacklock or early Lodge that give dimensions or weights on them. The early catalogues had hand-drawn pictures that could have appeared in any catalogue.” But he is willing to concede that some unmarked skillets might be Blacklock. “If you say ‘this is possibly Blacklock,’ I can accept that,” Grady says.
Since that historic fire destroyed the Blacklock foundry and many Lodge records have been lost in subsequent fires, we may never know. In the end, whether you have a genuine piece of Blacklock iron or an early Lodge piece is a matter of personal belief and conviction. But we think Joseph and Lizzie would be pleased to know that both their family and the company they started are still thriving more than 120 years later.