Keeping the spark alive: historical society highlights rich metal working history in western Maryland


THURMONT, Md. (WDVM) — Western Maryland has a rich history of metalworking and a local historical society is preserving that history and keeping the spark alive.

Before there were mass-produced iron wares, there were blacksmiths standing over the forge, and the Maryland Iron Festival allowed guests to take a step back in time to experience history. The annual festival, which was held on Saturday and Sunday, opened the doors to the 1770s when the Johnson brothers first built and fired up the Catoctin Furnace. According to the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, the furnace was first ignited in 1776 and was blown out in 1903.

Stephen Dill is a local blacksmith in Frederick, Md., and was demonstrating blacksmithing techniques for festivalgoers. He says blacksmiths were the original recyclers, reusing old or scrap metal to make new pieces or tools.

“We didn’t import all of our tools from China in those days. We had to make them here,” Dill explained. “They made the tools that made life go. Every village had to have a blacksmith. Every farmer needed a blacksmith, or he did the skills himself to keep his tools sharp, his plows working.”

The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society strives to educate visitors on every role in historical iron production with their annual festival as well as their Museum of the Ironworker. The museum also has facially reconstructed models of two enslaved African Americans who were buried, and then exhumed for research, from what is thought to be the most complete African American cemetery connected with the early industry in the United States according to the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.

Elizabeth Comer, President of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, says that the Catoctin Furnace was the “heart of the Industrial Revolution.”

“The Catoctin Furnace was really the epicenter of the iron industry,” Comer explains. “It was particularly important because it was a skill that was brought to the united states by enslaved Africans and so we’re telling that story here.”

Vicki Barrett was one of very few female metal workers when she started nearly 35 years ago. Now the retired artist is looking forward to seeing the next generation of artists take up the craft.

“I think it is little appreciated, or not as appreciated as it should be as how long this kind of craft or art has been utilized for living,” Barrett said. “I love seeing more and more young women get into this work because it is wonderful to make these things.”

The Maryland Iron Festival was previously known as Spring in the Village, Art at the Furnace before rebranding in 2019.

For more information about the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, please visit their website.

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