Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Curators' Favorites

Mayville Iron Parlor Stove

Gothic revival parlor stove made of iron ore from Mayville, Wisconsin, 1846.
[Museum object #1999.141.1]

Objects that document a single moment of transition from "frontier" to "civilization" are rare. The Mayville stove is one such object. Cast in 1846, it is the first stove ever made from iron deposits in Wisconsin, and it marks the birth of an industry in what was then just a fledgling village in Dodge County.

This is a six-plate, cast iron parlor stove with the door on one end and the flue opening in the back. The stove was manufactured by the St. Joseph Iron Works of Mishawaka, Indiana (now an eastern suburb of South Bend) to demonstrate the manufacturing potential of newly discovered iron ore from Mayville, in the Wisconsin Territory. And the stove did the trick. By 1848, an iron mining company had been incorporated and outside investors were buying ore bearing tracts in the area. The iron industry quickly became the mainstay of the local economy and remained so for almost a century.

When this stove was made, Mayville was barely a year old. It was founded in 1845 by Alvin and William Foster and Chester May, who intended to establish a sawmill on the East Branch of the Rock River. May, a canal and railroad contractor born in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, had come to Wisconsin from New York in 1839 and settled in Fort Atkinson.

In the fall of 1845, May discovered a deposit of red dirt that he believed was iron ore about four miles south of Mayville, the settlement that bore his name. May's find was located along the west-facing Niagara Escarpment, a 60 foot high limestone bluff that runs from south of Mayville to the town of Neda. The southern, ore-bearing portions of this bluff have come to be called the "Iron Ridge" - not to be confused with the nearby town of the same name. Chester May must have been confident that the red dirt was good quality ore, because the following June, he purchased 80 acres in Section 12 of Hubbard Township, along the Iron Ridge, for $100.

May wasted little time in investigating the ore. In the summer of 1846, he sent small samples of it to Solomon Juneau in Milwaukee (who burned it in crucible and pronounced it "finest quality") and to an unidentified blacksmith in Illinois, who made a single pot hook of it. Buoyed by these results, Chester May and his son Eli shipped three tons of ore to the St. Joseph Iron Works in Mishawaka to be smelted. The St. Joseph Works, which had been established in the early 1830s to take advantage of bog iron deposits along the St. Joseph River, was the closest, established blast furnace to Wisconsin at the time.

The Mays must have been dismayed to hear back from Mishawaka that the ore was worthless. Undaunted, they dug another ten tons of ore, packed it into barrels and sent it to Indiana, this time accompanied by Eli. Seven tons were again fruitlessly smelted using a flux of marl (a clay-like soil containing calcium carbonate) to remove impurities. Finally, the iron workers realized that the Wisconsin ore was pure enough that no flux was needed, and this stove was cast from the remaining three tons of ore.

The stove is made in a Gothic revival style, a popular mid-nineteenth century decorative style loosely derived from medieval architecture. The stove itself is quite architectural, featuring galleries of pointed arches on its sides, and an upper tracery-like grill anchored at its corners by steeply pointed spires adorned with leaf-patterned crockets. When it returned to the Mays' home in Fort Atkinson, it must have been one of the most stylish stoves in the Wisconsin Territory.

Besides proving that Wisconsin ores were usable, the stove served another crucial purpose: it attracted investors. Three representatives of the St. Joseph Iron Works visited Dodge County in 1847, liked what they saw, and decided to purchase land in the area. In January 1848, they agreed to buy Chester May's 80 acres and another 80 nearby belonging to Eli May. The price was $4000 for each tract, which returned a $3900 profit to each man. These Indiana businessmen incorporated the Wisconsin Iron Company in 1848, and began commercial mining by June 1849. Chester May's tract became the site of the open pit Mayville Mine, which was operated almost continuously until 1912.

Other investors soon followed, and the Iron Ridge became the center of a small but substantial iron district, eventually featuring open pit and shaft mines, a railroad, coke ovens, and a blast furnace that remained in operation until 1932 .

In many ways, Chester and Eli May acted out a typical frontier development story: get there first, identify and acquire the local resources, develop them enough to attract attention, and sell out once the price goes up. Though Mayville was named for him, Chester seems to have treated his Dodge County enterprises strictly as investments. He continued to reside in Fort Atkinson, where he died in February 1849. After selling his claim, Eli played no further role in the iron industry, either, and he, too, died in Fort Atkinson. His estate donated this stove to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1909.

The Mayville stove was not just the catalyst for new settlement and industry; it is also a symbolically rich artifact. When the stove was cast, iron manufacturing embodied the promise of American progress, progress that must have seemed even more appealing on the Wisconsin frontier. Similarly, by aspiring to the latest decorative style - well beyond the settlement needs of the Territory - this stove displays an optimism and confidence that Wisconsin would one day join the mainstream of American life.

[Sources: Frederick, George G. When Iron Was King in Dodge County, Wisconsin, 1845-1928 (Mayville, Wis.: Mayville Historical Society, 1993); Groft, Tammis Kane Cast with Style: Nineteenth Century Cast-iron Stoves from the Albany Area (Albany, NY: Albany Institute of History and Art, rev. ed. 1984); Howe, Katherine S. and David B. Warren, The Gothic Revival Style in America, 1830-1870 (Houston, Tex.: Museum of Fine Arts, 1976).]


Posted on November 27, 2008

This article appears in the following categories:

select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text