Catoctin Furnace Eyes Future With Hope
A story by Jake Wynn:
Driving up Route 15 in Frederick County is a study in natural beauty and a lesson in the agricultural history of the region.
Thousands of acres of rolling hills and farm fields run up against the green, tree covered slopes of Catoctin Mountain. A small sign appears while driving in the northbound lane, announcing “Catoctin Furnace Heritage Area” with an arrow pointing to a narrow road angling off the highway.
Catoctin Furnace has been a part of Frederick County’s history for hundreds of years. Dating back to the time around the American Revolution, the furnace’s industrial legacy spans centuries. The iron forged at Catoctin Furnace, only a few miles southwest of the town of Thurmont, has supported multiple wars and created economic opportunity in the sparsely populated north part of the country.
Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area director Liz Shatto believes that this now abandoned industrial site provides the region with ability to interpret the county’s complicated history.
“Catoctin Furnace is important because it allows us to tell not only Frederick’s industrial history, but the story of industrial slavery,” she said. In its early years, the Furnace was operated by slaves employed by the family who operated the iron forge.
For those familiar with Maryland’s colonial history, the story of the Furnace has a rich connection. Thomas Johnson, the state’s first governor, was among those in charge of the operation at Catoctin Furnace.
Interpreting this location, which now is only a mere shadow of its former economic powerhouse is the most difficult part. Shatto believes the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society has done an incredible job in telling the Furnace’s powerful story. “The events they hold bring the stories of the Furnace to life and tell about the people, both enslaved and free, who worked the fires there,” she said.
The Historical Society has been the organization tasked with maintaining the Furnace’s history and recreating the site’s importance to the wider community. Elizabeth Comer, secretary of the Society, focuses on the events that the organization hosts in order to raise community knowledge of the area’s history.
One way the Society has done this is by hosting events at the Furnace. “Spirits of the Furnace,” an event hosted by the Historical Society and Cunningham Falls State Park every October, sells out now. “We have been running that event for several years,” Comer said, “and every year has been getting bigger.”
The most recent edition of that event included students from a nearby private school as living history actors. Silver Oak Academy provided numerous students portraying the community’s residents over 100 years ago, including enslaved workers and poor Irish immigrants.
“These kind of partnerships are how historical societies and local organizations can thrive,” Shatto said of events like “Spirits at the Furnace.”
Partnerships are not the only way that the organization has been raising awareness of history at Catoctin Furnace. Recently, the Historical Society began a fundraising campaign through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website, seeking to help fund research in bioarcheology.
This project, in combination with the Smithsonian Institution, would help to fund further research on the bones removed from a cemetery nearby when Route 15 was widened several decades ago.
The bioarcheology project would help to identify where the people had come from and family connections through new scientific methods. “Stable isotope analysis has the potential to tell us where these workers were born, where they lived throughout their lives, and what their diets were like,” Comer wrote on the Indiegogo plea.
The organization seeks to raise about $14,000 through the site and has since raised more than $2,000.
Local filmmaker and Scenic Byways manager Chris Haugh believes that the Furnace’s numerous projects allow visitors to realize the connection between the Furnace and the local communities. “Mechanicsville, as Thurmont used to be known, had a tangible connection to the Furnace. It really drove the local economy and has always been a local landmark,” Haugh explained.
One of the amusing details relayed by one of the tour guides during the Spirts of the Furnace event told the story of a fight between Furnace workers and the residents of Thurmont. “They did not particularly like each other, despite living so close together,” she said.
These events also draw tourists and heritage travelers to the region. John Fieseler, executive director of the Tourism Council of Frederick, repeatedly pointed out the benefit to travelers visiting in search of history. He said that research has shown that visitors traveling for heritage reasons typically stay longer and spend more money than typical tourists.
The regions many Civil War Trails markers, one of which resides at Catoctin Furnace, helps to bring people to the Furnace and to other points of historical interest.
Chris Haugh, who helps to oversee the historical markers along the county’s highways, echoes Shatto’s belief that the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society’s recent efforts are helping to get the story of the famous furnace out to the public. Today, much of the Furnace’s former territory is overgrown and only a fraction of the buildings remain.
Haugh does not believe that discounts from what Catoctin Furnace represents. “Their recent efforts, which I have documented, will help to keep the story of the Furnace’s workers and overseers alive,” he said.
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