What was an Iron Plantation?
But what about Slaves, Tobacco and Cotton?
"Plantation" to most people, calls to mind the pre-Civil War, "Gone-with-the-Wind" South. There gracious white mansions stood out amidst broad fields of cotton, tobacco or rice, tended by gangs of happy slaves singing in four-part harmony. But earlier the word was used to refer to establishing or "planting" a settlement, a colony, or an enterprise in a new, remote location. For instance, the place in Massachusetts where the Pilgrims settled in 1620 was long known as "Plymouth Plantation." A large rural establishment in the North, with hired hands producing iron, was as much a "Plantation" in this broader sense as was a big tobacco or cotton farm in the South worked by slaves.
The key characteristics were a sizable undertaking, in a remote area, where the promoter or entrepreneur acquired a large tract of land, and brought or attracted to it numerous workers and their families. There, under the promoter's direction, the community attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible even as it turned out a product to be sold commercially rather than used by themselves.
Any establishment designed to produce iron commercially of necessity had to be large. Hundreds of acres of forest, preferably hardwood, where the charcoal that would fuel the furnaces and forges could be made, had to be acquired. Owning nearby iron ore and limestone deposits and controlling a portion of a fast-moving stream or river for waterpower also were necessary. To find large tracts with these features meant locating at a place well removed from population centers.
Once real estate containing the necessary raw materials for making iron was secured, the future ironmaster also had to acquire farm land where food could be raised for the laboring families he meant to attract to the place and for the horses, mules, and oxen that would provide transportation to, from, and within the community. Because in the beginning the site would be remote from villages or towns, he had also to provide some housing for them, usually in the form of a cluster (or village) of small cottages near the ironworks.
Recruiting the workforce for his wilderness project followed. It must include perhaps a dozen experienced furnace workers, plus a substantial auxilary group as well: woodcutters, colliers, miners, and, if the works included a refinery forge, rolling mill, or slitting mill, workers to perform those operations would be needed as well. While many might be bachelors, most usually were married and had children. Not surprisingly, iron plantation villages sometimes contained a hundred or more residents.
To keep the selling price of iron low enough to compete with foreign iron, the ironmaster could not pay wages adequate for his employees to purchase their food, clothing, and other necessities from local merchants. Accordingly the wives and children of ironworkers usually planted and cared for a garden, cooked meals, preserved food for winter, spun and wove cloth, and made and repaired clothing. Some of the men with special skills, such as cobbling, made and patched shoes and boots. Blacksmiths shoed horses and made tools, while carpenters constructed and repaired buildings and made furniture and wooden tools. Worker families usually raised a few chickens and kept a pig for recycling garbage. Some even had a cow for milk. The workers and their older sons hunted in the forests for game and fished. In addition, the plantation had or was near farms that provided milk, butter, cheese, fruit and vegetables in season that were available at the Company store. Community butchering in late autumn provided meat.
To maintain these plantation villages, both a sawmill to furnish lumber and a gristmill to grind grain must be part of the community or readily available in the area. An ironworks company store, usually set up by the ironmaster, made available the goods that workers could not or preferred not to make for themselves. Some iron masters even provided such additional amenities as a school for the workers' children, and supported a church to serve the community's religious needs.
Northern iron plantations resembled Southern cotton or tobacco plantations in several ways. Both occupied large tracts of land in relatively remote areas. Both produced a single product for market, employed a large force of dependent workers, and aimed so far as possible to be self-sufficient communities. The successful ironmaster usually held a social position comparable to that of a Southern cotton or tobacco planter. Often both lived in substantial dwellings, if not mansions, and adopted a lifestyle based originally on that of the English gentry. Even slaves, African and Native American, made up a significant part of the work force on many Northern iron plantations as long as the institution was legal.