Forgotten Foundry: Birmingham Stove & Range

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Here, a true craftsman-molder prepares to dip a ladle into a stream of molten iron at Birmingham Stove & Range’s parent foundry during the 1940s. The man, whose name was Dodson or Dobson, had shoveled his own sand, built his own molds, and once he caught the molten metal in his ladle, would fill the molds.

UNLESS YOU’RE AN AVID COLLECTOR of cast-iron cookware, you’ve probably never heard of Birmingham Stove & Range. If you go to the corner of 27th Avenue North and Shuttlesworth Drive in North Birmingham, Alabama, where the foundry stood for more I than 75 years, you’ll find no trace of it. But at the peak of its production in the mid-1970s, Birmingham Stove & Range Company was the largest-producing cast-iron foundry in the United States, maybe even the entire world.

“It’s ironic that so little is known about Birmingham Stove & Range,” says Dwayne Henson of Amarillo, Texas, who has become the unofficial BS&R historian. “It just blows my mind.” He admits that he himself had not heard of the company when he first started collecting cast-iron cookware more than 10 years ago. Then he ran across a piece that puzzled him—a no. 14 skillet, 15 inches in diameter, with no name or identifying marks. He posted a picture of his find on the online forum for the Wagner and Griswold Society, an organization of cast-iron collectors, and asked, “Who made this?”

From his friend Roger Barfield, the president of WaGS, the answer came back, “I think it’s BS&R—Birmingham Stove & Range.”

“That got me interested,” Dwayne recalls, and he set out to learn more about the Birmingham foundry.

Through his fellow members of WaGS, Dwayne was able to track down Saunders Jones, II, one of the last presidents of Birmingham Stove & Range, who was still living in Birmingham, Alabama. The two men exchanged telephone calls and email messages, forming a close friendship despite the fact that they lived more than 950 miles apart. Saunders Jones put Dwayne in touch with other former employees of BS&R. Gradually, Dwayne was able to piece together the story of this remarkable company.

THE “MILLION DOLLAR” CORNBREAD SKILLET

Dwayne describes the Jones family, who invested in Atlanta Stove Works in 1898 and later built the Birmingham foundry in 1902, as the Henry Fords of cast iron. He refers to the Red Mountain line of cast-iron cookware, introduced in 1930, as their Model T. Sam D. Jones and his brother Bolling Jones decided to build a foundry in the upstart iron-making town 145 miles west of Atlanta to make cast-iron hollowware. Sam D’s son, Bolling Jones, II, and his grandson, Saunders Jones, II, carried on the tradition, shepherding Birmingham Stove & Range through more than ninety years of production.

Although the company primarily produced wood-burning stoves, BS&R cookware was easily the most copied cast-iron cookware in the world, Dwayne points out. “Birmingham Stove & Range made ordinary skillets at an ordinary price for ordinary cooks. But the methods they used, the way they did things, and even their designs are still in use today.”

Some of the methods that Dwayne admires might be called just plain old Southern thriftiness. The foundry printed different labels for the private lines of cookware it produced for other retailers. The skillets were the same; they just put different labels on them. Even BS&R’s economy line, known as Pioneer, was identical to its more prestigious Century Line, Dwayne points out. “It sounds like just plain common sense,” he says. “It was so simple, it’s brilliant.”

The Birmingham foundry was the first to bring real mechanization to the cast-iron industry. In 1966, Birmingham Stove & Range became the first cast-iron foundry to mechanize its production line by installing Disamatic molding machines, which automated the process of creating molds for casting iron. Before that time, master craftsmen built the molds for casting iron by hand. A good molder could make 250 to 300 molds a day. One Disamatic machine could produce a mold every 15 seconds; that’s 240 molds in one hour.

The company also encouraged its employees to be innovative. If they had an idea for a new product, they could come into the foundry on the weekends to work on it.

In the 1930s, Piggy Greenfield, a Louisiana salesman for BS&R, convinced the company to make some modifications to its sad iron heater, which was used to heat irons for ironing clothes. The result was the Sportsman Grill, an iconic BS&R piece that is highly sought by collectors today. The grill had interchangeable parts—a grill, a deep fish fryer, and a lid—that could be arranged in many configurations. It was a versatile way to cook outdoors. BS&R continued to make the grills until the foundry shut down in 1989. The company sold the pattern to Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, which continues to manufacture them today.

In 1967, a BS&R foundry foreman named Billy Washburn began coming into the foundry on weekends to make a cast-iron piece for his wife. She wanted a cornbread skillet that would make cornbread crispy on all sides. With the help of personnel manager Mike Bryan, he came up with the BS&R cornbread skillet, a 9-inch skillet divided into 8 wedges. (BS&R also made a 6½ -inch version with 6 wedges.) With the new Disamatic molding machines in place, the company could turn out hundreds of cornbread skillets in one day. Priced at just $1.19, the skillet earned the nickname, “The Million-Dollar Skillet,” when it sold more than 500,000 pieces the first year and again the second year, making more than $1 million for BS&R.

In the 1980s, at the suggestion of another BS&R employee, Frank Martin, Hugh Rushing, vice president of marketing for Birmingham Stove & Range, created Frank’s Handy Dan Cornstick Pan. Hugh and Frank noticed that it was almost impossible to put a traditional cornstick pan in the oven without sticking your thumb in the batter. “They took the handle of another pan, welded it to the side of a cornstick pan, and ground it off,” Dwayne explains. “That’s the best pan they ever made.” Sadly, the foundry would cease production before the end of the decade, and Frank’s Handy Dan Cornstick Pan would be made for only a few years. Today the pan is a rare find among collectors.

“There’s something special about the Southern foundries like Birmingham Stove & Range, Lodge, Glasscock, and Martin,” Dwayne concludes. “They all cast for the same Southern folks who were typically poorer and had a different relationship with their food. In the South, people typically ate what they grew, what they had access to, what they caught, or what they hunted. Food was a personal thing.

“It’s nice to see that people are going back to that,” he adds.

Last October, after the WaGS Convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Dwayne Henson traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where he finally met Saunders Jones, II. “What a delight he was! Even though he was born in 1926, his mind is still as sharp as a tack,” Dwayne recalls. “He was amazed that anybody was interested in what they did back in the old days. He said, ‘Dwayne, we were just making skillets.’”

Perhaps it wasn’t such an ordinary skillet after all.

“Birmingham Stove & Range made ordinary skillets for ordinary cooks. But the methods they used, and even their designs are still in use today.”