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Museum features iron furnace history

April 07, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

THURMONT, Md. - Mark Spurrier, a naturalist and storyteller at Cunningham Falls State Park, puckered his face and blew.

"Crprhshhhhhhhhhh! That's what it sounded like all the time," Spurrier said Saturday afternoon standing outside the remains of the "Isabella" furnace, a few steps off U.S. 15 north of Frederick, Md.

If you were unlucky enough to be one of the hundreds of workers - either slaves or poor immigrants - at the Catoctin Furnace Iron Works, Spurrier said, probably the only thing you would hear with any regularity was the rush of hot air produced from hundreds of pounds of coal melting iron ore.

The ore, once refined, was shipped up and down the East Coast from 1774 to 1903.

One hundred years later, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which runs the park, pays people like Spurrier to learn the story of the furnace and to seek more information about its past.

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In the mid-1990s, Spurrier said, strides were made toward focusing on the historical past of the park. Four years ago, a museum dedicated to the iron works and furnace was completed.

The museum takes up one room and provides an overview of the geological history of the park and the iron works. The information came from oral histories, financial records and personal collections, Spurrier said.

Standing in the woods amid heaps of slag - the black, rock-like byproduct of iron smelting - Spurrier pointed at the creek.

"What do you see here?" he asked.

Aside from the cars humming along U.S. 15, there is a creek and a lot of trees. "Exactly. Lots of trees," he said.

The iron works required at one point an acre of trees a day to be reduced to charcoal for use in melting the ore, he said.

"Literally, this entire area was decimated," he said, pointing at a now heavily forested hill.

The woods were replanted thanks to an economic program under President Franklin Roosevelt.

While strict facts are part of the history, there is also the gray area of lore. Spurrier said there are plenty of unproven stories that are still fun to tell.

Like the one behind Dutch Boy Hill.

"You won't find it on any map, not any recent map; I've looked," Spurrier said.

A story passed on from an old man who was among the last to work at the furnace went something like this:

In the 1930s a couple of bootleggers found the remains of what appeared to be a little boy in a fruit orchard, Spurrier said, relating the man's story.

It occurred to the old man the remains might be those of a young Dutch boy who disappeared after accidentally chopping the roots of a tree in George the Tanner's orchard. Legend has it, Spurrier said, that George the Tanner would kill little boys' pets, make gloves out of them, and sell them back to the boys.

When the Dutch boy disappeared, a friend went looking for him. She never found his body, but one time when George the Tanner got drunk, she snuck into his home and found a pocket watch and a set of coins that were the boy's prized possessions.

Then, Spurrier offered the story's "kicker": If you listen carefully on a quiet night, "You can still hear the boy hacking away with his ax."

Whether it's true or not, Spurrier said, "What a great story to tell your kid, not to talk to strangers at the Catoctin furnace."

For information on the Catoctin Furnace Museum, contact Cunningham Falls State Park at 301-271-7574.

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