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Margaretta Furnace was a leading iron making center in 19th century York County

1876 York County Atlas

A few weeks ago I posted the tale of Spoonie Gohn’s supposed encounters with Slaymaker’s ghost at Margaretta Furnace. I had initially shared that story with the attendees at the York Daily Record annual Unraveling York County History night in early December.

Margaretta Furnace with the grand mansion house and huge barns that stand just outside East Prospect have always intrigued me, so I wrote my December York Sunday News column on the real history of Margaretta Furnace.

Because of the abundance of iron ore, limestone and forests for charcoal there were quite a few iron furnaces in operation during the 18th and 19th centuries in York County. You can still see some remnants of these York County’s furnaces; the best preserved is Codorus Furnace, a property of the Conservation Society of York County. It sits by Furnace Road near Starview, and you can stop by anytime and read the interpretive labels. The ironmaster’s mansion, a private property, still stands a short distance away, but it appears to badly need restoration.

There are two restored iron furnace complexes not too far away that my family and I have enjoyed visiting. Cornwall Furnace is about an hour from downtown York in Lebanon County. It is a National Historic Landmark administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. It takes just a few minutes longer from York to get to Hopewell Furnace near the Berks County/Chester County line. It is a National Park Service National Historic Site. Both offer tours and either makes a nice day trip.

Here is my Margaretta Furnace column:

Margaretta Furnace spawned a busy community

Margaretta Furnace was erected by the Slaymaker family of iron manufacturers. Situated just west of East Prospect, it went into operation in the late 1820s. There was abundant iron ore in the immediate area as well as many acres of chestnut forest to be converted to charcoal to fuel the furnace and foundry. The Slaymakers are said to have owned over 5,000 acres of land in the vicinity in their heyday. Limestone, the other ingredient needed for smelting iron, was also obtainable nearby. Margaretta was a leader in producing copious amounts of pig iron as well as kettles, skillets, firebacks and many ten-plate stoves. According to historian George R. Prowell, writing in Gibson’s 1886 History of York County, during the nine months of each year the furnace operated, about 30 tons of iron a week, or about 1,100 tons annually, were produced. I have been told that the furnace and foundry were located on the west side of Prayer Mission Road, just south of Cabin Branch Creek. The Slaymakers erected Woodstock Forge a mile or so away around 1828 to fashion even more items from the iron produced at Margaretta.

A village quickly sprang up near the furnace, including workers’ houses, a mill and even a church. There was a company store, and there are some surviving examples in the York County History Center archives of Margaretta Furnace scrip the workers could spend only there. A privately owned store was opened sometime later. Besides a few of the remodeled workers’ houses, the most striking remnant of this prosperous hamlet is the well maintained large stone ironmaster’s house built by Henry Y. Slaymaker and the two adjacent stone barns. This impressive complex can be seen on the north side of Route 124 just east of the Cabin Creek Road/Prayer Mission Road intersection. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century, these building were owned by John H. Small and then Leonard E. Olewiler.

As leading citizens, Henry Y. Slaymaker and his wife, the former Margaretta Reigart, had their portraits painted by the well-known Jacob Eichholtz. The portraits passed down in the family until they were sold at auction in Middletown, Pennsylvania ten years ago. I have not yet determined their present location.

Henry Y. Slaymaker operated the complex from the late 1820s until the early 1840s, when his business declined. His wife Margaretta had died earlier, so he joined his daughter Henrietta Ruthrauff and family in Davenport, Iowa, where he died in 1862. Slaymaker had sold the operation, and, according to Prowell, it was later restarted by former employees Curran and Connelly, in partnership with Dr. Barton Evans and, later, William H. Kurtz and John Campbell. Iron production there continued well into the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The village itself seems to have thrived for quite some time. The York Daily reported that the Margaretta Sunday School picnic was to be held at the “Grove at Margaretta Furnace” on July 1 1882. Both Professor Theile’s Orchestra and the East Prospect Band would provide “delightful music” and ice cream and refreshments would be in “bountiful supply.” Proceeds would go toward a library for the Sunday School.

“Winter sports” at Margaretta Furnace were covered in the York Daily in January 1883. The Margaretta correspondent related that a cold wave had dropped temperatures to near zero and the roads were sheets of ice, so travel was only possible by sleighs. In addition, young people around Margaretta formed a coasting [sledding] club and were preparing to race the East Prospect club. The East Prospectors had laid out a mile-long course, which they claimed to have run in 32 seconds.

The substantial stone mill that served the community was probably also built in the late 1820s. Photos show it on present-day Prayer Mission Road, right before Cabin Branch creek. According to York County mill files at the York County History Center, compiled by the late Grant Voaden, it was last owned by the Mittel family, and Silver Twig flour was produced there. The York Daily reported in August 1915 that torrential rains caused the large dam at the Benjamin Mittel mill to burst. Evidence shows that the mill continued to operate into the late 1920s. It was demolished in 1946.

The Margaretta Furnace file at YCHC includes a charming account of summer at “Grandpa’s farm,” in 1906. It was written in the 1960s by the granddaughter of Leonard Olewiler and describes their annual summer sojourn from York. The large mansion with its marble fireplaces, ornate ceilings and open winding stair to slide down impressed granddaughter Marion. She relished wandering among the many outbuildings and visiting the cattle, horses, mules and pigs. She could not wait to get into her sunbonnet and out of her shoes. Dozens of family members gathered there annually for the Fourth of July picnic with their own fireworks. After all those years, Marion vividly described the “light” meal on the lawn of roast beef, fried chicken, chicken corn soup, “mountains” of potato salad, “bushels” of rolls, “Dutch sweets and sours,” as many as six layer cakes, and, especially the homemade vanilla ice cream, “heavily doused with rich chocolate sauce” and served in pint tin cups.

She cherished memories of wading in the creek and finding arrowheads in the plowed fields, and of the stories told by her grandfather of earlier days in the village, including meeting his future wife, Theresa Smith, at the little Presbyterian church that had stood on the opposite hill. This was the church built by the Slaymakers for furnace workers decades before.

The mansion farm is privately owned, and I have been told that it has been conserved for the future. I always get a lift when I drive by places such as this, grateful that the beauty and heritage will be there to be appreciated by future generations.

Fireback manufactured at Margaretta Furnace