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Made in Appalachia: Beyond Cabins, Crafts, and Coal

A virtual exhibit featuring Artifacts and their stories that explore Appalachian material culture beyond its stereotypical inclusions.

Iron, Steel, Copper, & Aluminum

Many metal products are connected to Appalachia. The story includes the early iron furnaces of eastern Kentucky, the copper mines of southeast Tennessee, the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Birmingham, the vast Alcoa, Tennessee aluminum factory, and many more places. And in all these places are people who own the land, mine the raw materials, and work with the chemical and machinery.

Iron Ore Sample (limonite)

[Accession 2014.1.16]

From Madison County, Kentucky

Iron Cannonball (early 19th century)

[Accession 1973.7.36]

Possibly made of Eastern Kentucky iron

Iron Kettle Lid (early-mid 19th century)

[Accession 1970.3.58(b)]

Possibly made of Eastern Kentucky iron

Red River Charcoal Iron

Foundry Workers, Middlesboro, Kentucky, ca. 1900

One of Appalachia’s earliest industrial products was iron. Parts of the region had all the ingredients in one place: iron ore, hardwood to make charcoal, and limestone.  The first charcoal iron furnace in the Kentucky was in Bath County built in 1791. It made pig iron, cookware, tools, and cannon balls. Many more furnaces opened in Kentucky’s Red River region. It was one of the top iron producing places in the country before the Civil War. Many furnaces used slave labor. During the Civil War iron production began disappear form the region. Areas around furnaces became quickly deforested, furnace technology changed, and new centers of production emerged. By 1910 iron manufacture had virtually ceased in Kentucky.

Charcoal iron furnace, Owningsville, Kentucky, built in 1791

Birmingham Iron

The Tennessee Coal Iron Works, Birmingham, Alabama, 1909

Birmingham, Alabama, was born an iron-making city. Founded in the 1870s by industrialists hoping it would become the world leader, it was named after the well-known British iron center. It was deliberately located where iron ore, coal, and limestone were abundant.  

Alabama coal had too much phosphorous to make high quality steel, but it was good for casting iron into pipes, cookware, and intricate ornamental shapes. Birmingham iron factories soon dominated this market.  

Low labor cost characterized the Birmingham iron. Most workers were displaced agricultural workers. Even convict labor was used.

Casting Pig Iron at Sloss Furnace, Birmingham, Alabama, 1906

Sloss Furnace was Birmingham’s Largest

Cast Iron Cornbread Skillet


[Accession 2014.2.1]

Cast Iron Divided Cornbread Skillet (1967)
Made by Birmingham Stove & Range Company, Birmingham, Alabama

Iron from Alabama was excellent for intricate cast iron cookware and decorations.  This design for a divided cornbread baking pan was developed by Birmingham Stove & Range Company in 1967 and produced into the 1980s.  This is the smaller, and rarer six slice version.  A larger nine-inch eight slice version is more common.  According to one source, BSR, as the company is known to collectors, initially marked these "Patent Pending" to discourage other companies from copying the design. Later they were marked "Made in USA." 

[Accession 2014.2.1, reverse]

Pittsburgh Steel

The Homestead Steel Works, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ca. 1910, one of many steel mills in Pittsburgh at this time

Beginning in the early 1800s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was an important industrial city in a westward expanding America. It had access to river transportation and proximity to the rapidly growing states of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  

After the Civil War, these advantages combined with nearby sources of coal, oil, iron ore, salt, limestone, and abundant water. To these were added workers immigrating from Europe and migrating from the American South. Pittsburgh rose to become the iron and steel center of world by 1911.  

During the middle of the 20th century most of America’s automobiles, bridges, and buildings were made from Pittsburgh steel. Beginning in the 1970s new technologies and global market forces shifted the advantages elsewhere and Pittsburgh’s steel industry rapidly declined.

Rolling mill at Homestead Steel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ca. 1920

The Copper Basin of Tennessee

Sheet Copper Flashing

The Ducktown, Tennessee Copper Basin

Kimsey Mountain is in the background,1950

A large valley in southeastern Tennessee is known as the Copper Basin. The area once had large deposits of copper ore, some near the surface, but most deep under the earth. Prior to 1838 the Cherokee people occupied the area. They used some of the natural copper to make jewelry, tools, and utensils. They are believed to have traded copper items with other native peoples. In 1838 the Cherokee were forcibly removed from the lands.

In 1843 the new non-Indian inhabitants discovered the copper ore. Underground copper mining began soon after.  The largest mine was called the Burra Burra Mine.  Shafts reached nearly half-a-mile down. 

The ore was smelted on site using wood for fuel. To obtaine this fuel, the surrounding region was clear cut of timber. Smelting required heating the ore to extract the copper, but it also released sulfur dioxide which poisoned the ground over thousands of acres so that nothing would grow. Lost vegetation meant extreme erosion.  

Mining and smelting ceased in 1987. While efforts have been made to repair the damage, much of the area is still barren and polluted today.  Locals are trying to develop the area for tourism.

Miner in the Burra Burra copper mine, Ducktown, Tennessee,1941

Resource extraction is not the only cause of environmental damage in Appalachia.  In some places industrial pollution affects vast landscapes. One historian wrote that in the Tennessee Copper Basin the effects of the copper mine were small compared to pollution from the smelter.

The smelting facility of the Tennessee Copper Company in Ducktown, Tennessee, ca. 1940

People are trying to reclaim the damaged lands. Millions of acid-tolerant trees have been planted, ca. 2010 

Copper Ore Specimen

[Accession 2014.1.27]

From Ducktown, Tennessee mines

Copper Pan (1880s)

[Accession 1969.1.519]

Used near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Possibly made of Ducktown copper

Copper Soldering Iron

[Accession 1969.1.1172]

Used near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Possibly made of Ducktown copper

Aluminum and Alcoa

The Alcoa Aluminum Factory in Alcoa, Tennessee, sits beneath the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains from which it draws its power, ca. 2000.

Aluminum is the fifth most abundant element on earth and nearly 300 billion aluminum cans are made worldwide each year, but until recently, metallic aluminum was rare and expensive.  

In 1886, 22-year-old Oberlin College student Charles Martin Hall (for whom Berea’s “Hall Science Building” is named) developed an economical process for extracting metallic aluminum from bauxite ore. Hall started the Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa.  

Getting aluminum out of the ore requires large amounts of electricity. In 1910 Alcoa began to acquire land in the Tennessee Valley, near Maryville, Tennessee, to build hydroelectric dams and an aluminum factory. In 1914 it produced the first aluminum ingots there and in 1920 it began making rolls of sheet aluminum. For most of its history, the Alcoa Tennessee made aluminum ingots and sheets that other companies made into finished products. In 1964 Alcoa Tennessee began producing aluminum beverage containers. In 1984 the plant began making only aluminum cans.  

A community of workers grew up around the factory, and a town was also born. In 1919 the city of Alcoa, Tennessee, was incorporated with 3,000 people.  For decades it was a company town, with life strongly controlled by the corporation.  Today it is home to about 8,500.


Left: Aluminum foil advertisement, 1957

  Right: Worker in the aluminum sheet mill, Alcoa, Tennessee, ca. 1945

Alcoa Aluminium Can Advertisement, 1963

Fluorite Specimen

[Accession 2014.1.15]

From northeastern Kentucky

Fluorite is used as a flux in the Aluminum-making process.

Aluminiun Ore Specimen (Bauxite)

[Accession 2014.1.37]

From Arkansas, not from Appalachia, but this is the type of ore used at Alcoa

Jello Mold (ca. 1950)

[Accession 2013.30.1]

Likely made using sheet aluminum from the Alcoa Tennessee plant

Aluminum House Siding (ca. 1960)

Left: Aluminum house siding, possibly made by Alcoa in Tennessee

Right: Siding Advertisement 1947, Saturday Evening Post

Aluminum Can (2013)


Made by Crown Cork & Seal using sheet aluminum, most likely from the Alcoa Tennessee plant