Cottage Furnace was established in the Red River Iron District in 1854 by John C. Mason and Samuel Wheeler, Mason’s brother-in-law. It passed through several owners and operated until 1879.
It was the first furnace in the region to operate on the "hot blast system" (preheated hot air was blown into the furnace to make it burn more efficiently). These furnaces required the labor of many people to gather the needed resources and to build and operate the furnace. Entire families often moved to the furnace for work.
Archaeological excavations at Cottage Furnace focused on two houses where workers lived. These houses were recorded as archaeological sites 15Es89 and 15Es90. Artifacts suggested that the houses dated from the 1850s to the 1870s. They helped firmly tie these buildings to the furnace operation. Investigators documented remnants of a mortared stone foundation and rocks from a chimney at Site 15Es89. The only clear architectural remains at Site 15Es90, however, were some chimney stones and the base of a mud-chinked hearth. Archaeologists recovered over 3,000 artifacts from Site 15Es89, but only 582 artifacts from Site 15Es90.
Research in the federal census records revealed that families lived in house clusters around the furnace, in a pattern that is sometimes called an "Iron Plantation." These records listed the occupations of adult workers. In 1870, several men were listed as colliers – those in charge of working the furnace; or miners – those in charge of mining the iron ore. But the operation also required families who produced the food needed to everyone. They all worked together to support the Iron Plantation. In 1860, furnace workers also included the enslaved.
Ceramics from the two excavated sites were very different, Investigators recovered more highly decorated examples at Site 15Es89, compared to Site 15Es90.
Site 15Es89 also yielded a good sample of animal bones. The most common meat eaten by the residents was pig, followed by beef and chicken. They must have supplemented their diet with wild foods, too, as investigators also found squirrel and possibly groundhog and frog bones.
Overall, the archaeological evidence suggested that a family of higher socio-economic status, perhaps one of the head colliers, occupied Site 15Es89, while the family of a lower-status furnace worker or perhaps an ore miner lived at Site 15Es90.
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