Sparks fly as Dwight Collier pours a 12,000-pound vat of molten metal in the foundry at Lodge Manufacturing Co. in South Pittsburg, Tenn. (pop. 3,295). A machine automatically fills molds with the fiery hot metal and within minutes hundreds of skillets are rolling along the assembly line at the nation’s only cast-iron cookware manufacturer.
After the molds are removed and the skillets cool, workers grind off the rough edges and the heavy-duty cookware is given a stonewashed bath, sprayed with a coating of vegetable oil, baked in a high-temperature oven to complete the seasoning process, and packaged for shipment to stores around the world.
“A lot of my family has worked here,” says Collier, 50, following in the footsteps of his father, Daniel Booker Collier, and grandfather, Will McCarver, who also worked in the Lodge foundry.
“It’s totally different than when I came here,” adds Collier, who has worked for Lodge since 1973. “It’s easier now; it’s all automated.”
While electricity and other technological advances have allowed the company to expand its product line and production, the basic process of making cast iron hasn’t changed much during the last 110 years.
“We’re still melting iron and pouring it into sand molds,” says Henry Lodge, 55, company president and the great-grandson of Joseph Lodge, who started the foundry in 1896.
Four generations of the Lodge family have owned and operated the company, which today employs 185 workers and makes 140 different products, ranging from muffin pans to hibachi-style grills.
Cast-iron cookware is valued for its even-heating qualities and durability. It’s nearly indestructible and, when properly seasoned with cooking oil to prevent rusting, it can last more than a lifetime.
“I was raised on cast-iron,” says Billie Hill, 74, a Lodge Manufacturing employee for 54 years. “Both of my grandparents cooked with cast-iron, my mother cooked with cast-iron. Basically, I didn’t know there was anything else to cook with.”
Hill, who works in the company’s human resources department, carries on her family’s cast-iron cooking tradition. She uses a cast-iron skillet to fry eggs every morning, a cast-iron pan to bake cornbread every night, and periodically she pulls out a century-old cast-iron Dutch oven inherited from her grandmother.
“I keep that almost exclusively to make my pot roast in,” she says.
While most contemporary cooks use aluminum and stainless steel cookware, the nation grew up using cast-iron pots and skillets. Members of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition prized their iron pots as much as their rifles; pioneers carried cast-iron pots and skillets on their trek west; and cowboys on cattle drives used cast-iron to cook meals over campfires on the open range. In fact, cast-iron cookware was a kitchen essential until Teflon-coated utensils were introduced in the 1960s.
“The cast-iron skillet is the original non-stick skillet,” says Bob Kellermann, 57, Lodge’s chairman and CEO, and the great-grandson of the company’s founder.
With the demise of its primary cast-iron competitors—Griswold Manufacturing Co. of Erie, Pa., in 1957 and Wagner Manufacturing Co. of Sidney, Ohio, in 1997—Lodge became the nation’s only manufacturer of cast-iron cookware. Today, the increasing scarcity of American-made cast iron has created a demand for skillets, pots, pans and kettles among antique dealers and collectors.
“It’s Americana,” says David Smith, of Perrysburg, N.Y., president of the Wagner and Griswold Society, a group of 280 cast-iron collectors. “It’s the heart and soul of the American kitchen, all the way back to the time when it was used in the fireplace hearth of the home.”
No one knows if Lodge Manufacturing will be making skillets and Dutch ovens 100 years from now, but company officials would like to think so, as long as some cooks prefer frying chicken, baking cornbread and making pot roast in cast-iron cookware.
“Not everyone can inherit their grandmother’s pan,” Kellermann says.
Visit www.lodgemfg.com or call (423) 837-7181 for more information.