by Maryan Nowak
The beginnings of the iron industry came to the present Taunton area by the middle of the 17th century (1652) when Henry and James Leonard and Ralph Russell of Braintree were invited by the inhabitants "to set up a Bloomery Work on the Two Mile River". It took some 4 years to accumulate sufficient capital, a dam to be built and heavy machinery to be imported for the iron works to become a reality. The records are not clear whether Henry Leonard and Ralph Russell were actually engaged in this works; for history, finds them involved in iron workings in Dartmouth and Lynn during this period. However, the records are quite clear that James Leonard was a proprietor in the organization of the works in 1653-54. In 1656, the production of limited quantities of iron was finally begun.
In 1683, Captain Thomas Leonard, son of James, became the "clearke and manager" of the expanding works. It is through his ledgers that the history of Taunton iron making has been preserved from 1655 until his death in 1713.
James and Leonard, his sons, and their sons all engaged in iron manufacturing and became involved in the various works in and about the Taunton area. It appears that a "bloomerie" or forge was established at any location where good grade bog iron, a sizable river and an abundance of timber for charcoal was readily available. Some 4 works were operational in the Taunton area before 1700. It is to be remembered that early Taunton encompassed Raynham, Norton, Dighton and Berkley.
Iron became so important to the early settlers that not only shareholders and workers were paid in iron of various manufacture, but it served as a medium of exchange well into the 18th century. It is recorded that as late as 1751 Reverend John Wales of Raynham, received a third of his salary in bar iron.
As Taunton grew and iron works occupied main rivers and surrounding bogs, the search for suitable conditions expanded outward to where damnable streams with nearby bogs and timber stands began to be utilized.
The earliest records indicate that Elizabeth Poole (sometimes spelled Pole) affectionately, but inaccurately, known as the foundress of Taunton, came from Dorchester in 1637 and settled in "Titicutt" a section of the present East Taunton area and extending into Lakeville. Legend had it that she purchased her land, some 5,122 acres, from three Indians known as Josiah, David and Peter; for a jack-knife and a peck of beans. The exact bounds of her plantation are not known except that history records she had holdings in various sections of the present East Taunton including the meadow through which ran Littleworth brook. This brook is of unique importance to this story because of its use from earliest times for grist and saw mills and other early enterprises dependent on water power.
As this stream meandered its way toward its final destination at the Taunton River; a location on the stream just east of the junction of Precinct Street and Middleboro Avenue (an ancient road to the neighboring town of Middleborough) was selected as a convenient and suitable place to erect an iron works to be known as King’s Furnace.
This area, not only provided the power and bog iron for the works, but an opportunity to expand other local resources necessary for family survival. There was the nearby Taunton River for transportation, the annual spring run of herring (alewives) for food and fertilizer, clay from the river banks for brick-making, stands of timber for building and fuel, a fertile plain for cultivation of corn and beans and meadows for the keeping of cattle.
It was in this environment February 25, 1723-24, that John King, merchant; Benjamin Hodges, carpenter; Elkanah Leonard, blommer of Middleborough (grandson of James Leonard); Samuel Tubbs, of Pembroke and William Tubbs of Plymouth agreed to "build a dam, furnace and appurtenances on Littleworth brook."
From the year of 1724-25, the Furnace continued to produce its wares for more than 100 years. John King was a man of enterprise and wealth. It was basically his money that established the works the year previous and maintained its early operation. He held some 11/16 of the business and his co-owners each 1/16 part. Emery’s History of Taunton quotes in substance the agreement and their commitment to remain in business for twenty years, unless it was to be dissolved by mutual consent.
The first furnace (a blast furnace) took nearly a year to complete. It specialized in the manufacture of hollowware (the first in the colony) and made wares initially from the size of a "jobie kettle to a ten pail caldron". The ore was supplied from the vicinity of Mine brook and from along the banks of Littleworth brook and the Taunton River. The remains of a number of these "strip mine" operations are currently being used as cranberry bogs. It required 2 weeks and hundreds of bushels of charcoal to initially heat the furnace to commence smelting. Once started, the "blast" was continued for five or six months, day and night. The moulders and supporting iron workers literally lived at the Furnace complex, both sleeping and eating in adjacent quarters.
The Furnace passed on from its original owners to their successors in the King family and to others until it became solely owned by Nathan King and Cromwell Washburn, both officers in the Militia of Massachusetts and veterans of the War of 1812.
In 1816, King and Washburn rebuilt the Furnace, changed the smelting process, employed some 30 moulders and others and did a thriving business. Their wares were shipped to New York by sloops, leaving from Weir Village on the Taunton River. These vessels often returned with ore and pig iron from New Jersey. This ore was found to be inferior for casting suitable hollowware; but, mixed with ores supplied from the Leonard bogs in Raynham and local East Taunton bogs, produced serviceable and durable products. The need for use of substitute resources was an early indication of what was about to happen.
An archeological survey conducted during the building of Massasoit State Park, described the site as follows: "Here, just north of the proposed clay core dam and the sluice way to be constructed, are the remains of King’s Furnace. The slag piles are located between the proposed dam and Middleboro Avenue and the Furnace itself was directly opposite on the northern side of the road." Little visually remains of the operation except for the vestiges of two stone foundations along the side of the brook; the vegetation covering whatever other remains are left. It was reported that some of the Furnace stone work was removed about 1850 for other local purposes. Just west of the site on Middleboro Avenue stands the home of Cromwell Washburn with its granite foundation and simple 2-story rectangular farmhouse construction.
With the expansion to the West, abundance of newer, higher-grade ores and the expanding mining of coal, the local iron industries disappeared, one by one, from the scene. These small enterprises could no longer compete in making iron from diminishing and inferior bog ores. After Washburn’s death in 1839, the furnace was soon abandoned and eventually the holdings were sold to Eleazer and Benjamin Richmond who converted the works to a box board saw mill.
Furnace Brook was originally known as Littleworth Brook. It rises from the springs near Elder’s Pond in Lakeville and runs through Bear Hole Neck, Bear Hole Ponds, Lake Rico, over the dam on Middleboro Avenue hence to the Taunton River. Its earliest notation comes from the history of Elizabeth Pole (1637) who owned some 2,500 acres in East Taunton and through which the brook ran.
Early records show that Cain’s gristmill stood on the brook, near Bear Hole Neck, from earlier than 1784. In May of 1812, it would appear that the mill was converted, or a mill was built on site, for the manufacture of cotton. The owners of this new mill being primarily the owners of the gristmill.
This mill was engaged in yarn making until about 1835. In 1838, it was converted into a box board and mill. It continued in this operation to at least 1892.
Continuing downstream, the next manufactory was King’s Furnace (hence Furnace Brook) which was built on Middleboro Avenue in 1724-25, and casting the first hollowware in the Old Colony. About 1845 the furnace was closed and converted into a box board sawmill and continued operation to at least 1900.
Between Middleboro Avenue and Taunton River Elizabeth Pole and her brother William had a much earlier gristmill dating back to about 1660. Its life has been lost in the sands of time.
you to one of our local historians,
Maryan Nowak of Taunton