The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2002

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The History of Early Ironworking

in Penfield

From a talk presented to the New Society of the Genesee
at the meeting of February 22, 2002

Gary Lehmann

The quiet suburban community of Penfield, just outside Rochester, NY, is one of the least likely places to go seeking evidence of iron ore mining, smelting or iron processing, but, strange as it might seem, I found that Penfield had a vigorous iron-processing industry for well over half of the nineteenth century. It is incongruous to think of such a smoky, grimy industry flourishing in a town now dominated by neat suburban houses surrounded by manicured lawns, but it turned out to be true.

My quest began the way all good historical inquiries begin with an odd scrap of paper that came to my hands from a friend of a friend. He was writing a history of Allen's Creek and events that occurred along its banks. In his research, he encountered a small map that purported to show the place where Leonard Stoneburner cast iron cannon balls during the War of 1812 on something called Cole Creek. It was said he sold them to both sides.

It took a few minutes just to locate the place the map indicated. Go to Panorama Plaza. Behind it and up the hill past Nalge Industries is the Rotary's Camp Hakimo. Along its western boundary is a small creek that arises less than a quarter mile uphill from the camp. I have walked Allen's Creek many times but was never aware that a creek existed at this point.

I filed this information away for about a year and only retrieved it one summer day while surveying Penfield's earliest tax rolls in Penfield Library's Local History Room. I came across a record of a paltry sum being paid annually until about 1821 by one Leonard Stoneburner for a patch of swamp land which turned out to be what we today call Panorama Plaza. He paid in taxes only about a tenth as much as an average Penfield farmer.

I recall as a child being aware that the developer, Emil Mueller rechanneled Irondequoit Creek and then created a shopping plaza, Penfield's first, by leveling the sandy hillside above to create a massive parking area in front of what we would today call a small strip mall. As a child, I was fascinated by the giant earth-moving machinery crawling up and down the hillside.

I looked up "Stoneburner" in some of the standard history books of Penfield and discovered that he is described as having many sons by his "squaw" wife. He apparently lived up Allen's Creek somewhere in the meadow at Corbett's Glen. What would Stoneburner have wanted with swampland? You can't farm it. Why would he have paid any taxes on worthless land? What was he doing up there?

  • In a flash I recalled the Stoneburner map and some odd pieces fell into place.
  • Indians are frequently named after what they do.
  • Stone burning is one of the steps necessary to smelt iron.
  • Penfield bedrock is limestone, the exact type of stone that one must burn to create the powdered flux that separates iron from slag.
  • Before 1840, the only kind of fuel that would have been capable of creating heat sufficiently intense to melt iron would be charcoal. The hillsides around Cole Creek were and are full of timber.
  • Cole is not a pioneer name around here. Could it be Cole Creek is named after charcoal? I know that Colliersville in mid-state New York has no coal mines nearby. It was named after charcoal colliers, coaliers.
  • Bog iron is retrieved from bogs, i.e. swamps, such as the land Mueller was covering over when I was a child. We always called it "the flats," but in the early nineteenth century it was a swamp.

What did an outcast Indian family do in Penfield's early days to make a living with a passel of strapping young boys to feed? Iron smelting, of course! On that site he had an abundant forest for charcoal production, bedrock of limestone, iron ore from the swamp, boys to work the foundry, and British and American naval forces anxious to buy fresh cannonballs. Viola!

I hastily arranged a visit to the site, accompanied by my friend with the map, and another with a metal detector. My friend the writer explained that there is a layer of iron about 220 feet under Penfield. Rising ground water passing through this layer collects molecules of iron which precipitate out when they reach surface oxygen. The iron attaches itself to silica, the sand that is found in swamps.

My friend with the metal detector explained that iron ore is so loaded with impurities, about 95%, that it won't even attract a magnet, or set off a metal detector. The only thing that would set off his machine was a cannonball or some real iron object.

We anxiously climbed the hillside between Camp Hakimo and below the Linden Avenue Trailer Park, but we were disappointed. The metal detector detected nothing. Instead of finding piles of slag, which would be the natural bi-product of iron ore smelting, we found a leveled space where Emil Mueller had scraped bare the ground to raise up "the flats" so they wouldn't flood every spring. Any evidence that might have existed of a smelting operation was scattered out under acres of asphalt.

At the site of the spring, we found discolored sand which my friends explained is the evidence that the iron is still causing ore to be precipitated at the surface even today. Rust-colored brown swatches in the sand bed surrounding the spring were the only evidence of the iron working the map had indicated.

I was discouraged, but I was on the scent of something very interesting. So, I went back to the library and in a reference book unearthed an English water color dated 1815 of a small English smelter and bloomery. There they were making cannonballs with a smelter that looked like an over-sized oil drum which stood about seven feet high. Over it was a wooden gallows with a chain winch. Large buckets were hoisted above the top of the smelter and tipped up so that coal, iron ore, and powdered limestone could be combined in sequence inside the fire chamber. At the bottom was a little door that allowed liquid iron to flow out into smelting cups. Using giant tongs, the smithies carried the molten iron to clay molds in which to cast the cannonballs. When the iron cooled, the clay mold was broken and out popped the cannonball. This sort of small-scale, low-tech process would have been entirely possible for Leonard and his boys.

Histories of iron mining explained that sometimes the bog iron is in layers of sand and can be shoveled out of wet ground. This may have been the sort of iron ore Stoneburner found, although some other sources show people leaning over swamp sleds walking out onto the muck of the swamp and gathering up iron ore in small balls from just under the surface of the water.

Other more general references revealed that during the colonial period, the British forbade the smelting of iron in America because that iron would compete with British iron. Exporting British goods to the colonies was one of the basic reasons to have colonies in the first place. So, although iron was needed to build eighteenth-century America, there were virtually no sites where iron smelting was conducted before the American Revolution. Then Americans broke the law en masse. Iron was needed in every growing town, but it was heavy, hard to transport, and expensive. In fact, it was exactly the kind of product that an enterprising non-farmer might want to make.

Why would Leonard Stoneburner not be a farmer? During the Revolutionary War, the Indians in this area sided with the British and were mostly driven out by public sentiment after the War.

Some Indians stayed in this area despite the risks, but they had to find inconspicuous places to live where their contact with white men was limited. Turk Hill in Perinton is named after the Indians who hid up there after the Revolution. Corbett's Glen, hidden away as it is in the hollow of Allen's Creek, would have been the sort of place Stoneburner would have sought out.

The story of Leonard Stoneburner and his iron making went dormant yet again, until I got an e-mail from Cooperstown from a curator at the New York State Historical Association inviting me to join them for a three-day charcoal burning experiment. The museum had an 1840 recipe for charcoal which they wanted to test out. I gladly accepted. Now I could learn exactly what Leonard and his boys had to endure to make the charcoal they needed for their smelting operation.

In preparation for "the burn," the Farmer's Museum folks cut and gathered eight cords of local wood and created a clay apron on ground about twenty feet in diameter in an open field above the Farmer's Museum. In weather that dipped into the low twenties, we set out to tend a giant bonfire for three days, working and sleeping in shifts, in hopes of learning how to create charcoal from raw wood. Basically, charcoal is a manufactured product which can best be described as desiccated firewood. Wood has the same relationship to charcoal as coal has to coke. The process is to drive all of the water out of the wood without destroying the carbon structure of the wood fiber. As I learned, you start out by building a crib or wooden chimney of cries-crossed sticks which frame the center flue of the fire chamber. Around this five-foot-high hollow, four-foot-long billets of wood are stacked in an ever-widening circle until the whole pile is about eight feet around. Shorter logs are set on top to complete the beehive shape of the entire pile.

Then a mixture of wet leaves and clay is packed all around the pile effectively sealing the air off from all directions. Only the top of the chimney is left open. A bonfire is built and burning embers are thrown down the chimney to start the pile on fire. When the fire takes a solid hold, the chimney itself is covered with logs, wet leaves and clay.

Now long sticks are poked into the pile at the base to let oxygen into the fire on a controlled basis. The fire naturally is drawn toward the oxygen holes, but as soon as the smoke changes from white to black, the holes on one side of the pile are closed up and holes on the other side are opened. This draws the fire away from the burning wood and toward the unburned wood. When the color of the smoke changes, it indicates that instead of burning off moisture, the fire has started to decompose the carbon structure of the wood to ash. This must be avoided.

Basically you just continue on in this way for three days until the entire pile has been cooked dry of its moisture, but not burned to ash. Then, all the holes are closed. The fire is smothered, until it goes out. When the pile has cooled, it is opened and the charcoal is removed.

It is quite amazing to hold pieces of charcoal as long as three feet which weigh next to nothing. With all the volatiles expelled, the wood has become almost pure carbon. Charcoal will burn at twice the temperature of regular firewood and is quite hot enough to smelt iron. This same process has been used by man all the way back to the Iron Age. The ancient Chinese and the la Tien Culture of the Celts knew and used this same system but, oddly, not the ancient American Indians. Leonard Stoneburner probably learned this process from a white man somewhere along the line, but here again, we are left to wonder who and why.

As Penfield grew in the early nineteenth century, the need for iron increased. By 1821, Leonard Stoneburner no longer paid taxes on his land. He may have died. Other Penfield citizens carried on along Irondequoit Creek in what they called "The Hollow," and we call "Linear Park."

In the course of the mile or so between the Linden Avenue Bridge and the Penfield Road Bridge, Irondequoit Creek drops about 90 feet, almost as much as the great falls of the Genesee. That drop created immense opportunities for proto-industrialists to convert the energy of flowing water into rotary mechanical power using waterwheels running in sluice ways. Shafts turned by water running over or under waterwheels drove machines set up along the stream.

The earliest mills were for grinding grains and sawing lumber. This makes sense as flour and meal, buildings and furniture were basic necessities for everyone. A forge to repair and manufacture tools and equipment is vital to farm and village economies. As early as 1800, a Mr. Bronson established a forge and trip hammer in the hollow. By 1812, Penfield already had three stores, a tavern, a distillery, a grist and saw mill, a forge and triphammer, as well as a church. It was a growing small town.

The fact that Bronson owned a triphammer suggests that he was interested in raising the quality of the iron he worked, perhaps even to steel, but that would involve retaining iron workers with extremely specialized skills, not likely to be available in the wilderness. What is likely is that Bronson would not have been competing head-to-head with Leonard Stoneburner. Bronson was probably forming metal items such as hinges, latches and wagon wheel rims from iron brought in from the coast or from Britain. Forges sometimes did small smelting operations but the tools and equipment needed are significantly different.

Penfield history books tell us that, in 1829, Calvin Owen and Silvanus Hall rented Samuel Rich's iron furnace to make plow shares. I have found no record of when Samuel Rich built this furnace, but since the plow shares that precede John Deere and the late 1830s were cast, it can be assumed that this "furnace" was used to cast iron products in what we would call a foundry.

By this time, iron ore was being shipped to Penfield from the towns of Ontario and Wolcott. The same iron layer that passes under Penfield, hits the surface in these places and can be easily surface mined. In ever-increasing volume, starting in 1811, iron ore from Wayne County supplied Penfield's needs. And from here on out to the end of the century, Penfield's capacity to make iron products declined rapidly as Wayne County iron operations under priced Penfield iron workers. Almost certainly by the time of the Civil War, blacksmiths were all that remained in Penfield of a once-thriving business.

2002, Gary Lehmann
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