Passion for Mount Olive Furnace still burns

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 17, 2005

Leaning forward in his wheelchair, Carl Malone traces the outline of the Mount Olive Furnace in the picture on his kitchen table.

Malone is a man who speaks with conviction about smelting, about iron, and about a bygone area he is looking to resurrect.

Malone has a dream, a dream of sharing his passion for Lawrence County furnaces, and it's a dream that has recently come one step closer to fruition.

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The Pedro resident and partner Amos Hawkins, a retired schoolteacher from Aid Township who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., launched an effort to restore the Mount Olive Furnace in 2002.

Lawrence County once played host to 15 different furnaces, 12 of which are now owned by the government or destroyed. Mount Olive is one of the three remaining furnaces that are privately owned.

That makes it an ideal choice to be refurbished, but it's also a special furnace on its own, with a base carved out of native rock, and a Roman arch that still stands which held the casting house of the furnace.

The site is also rich with historical significance. Mount Olive Furnace was a station on the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first to make steel from raw materials.

Originally, the two men had obtained a 50-year lease on the land in Washington Township near the Decatur line on which the furnace resides. But, after a change in ownership, the duo was able to buy the land outright.

Malone and Hawkins, and the several locals now assisting them, are not intending on simply rebuilding the furnace but revitalizing it. They plan to install a park around the area, with picnic tables, restrooms and a souvenir shop. It will also be a furnace education center of sorts, with meeting rooms, classrooms and a bookkeeping section.

If the group has its way, the renewed furnace will be a requisite field trip for every student in Lawrence County.

"We want to keep the history of the furnaces," Malone said. "Lawrence County was the capital of the iron furnaces of the United States at one time."

Amos Hawkins has similar feelings, and he hopes the furnace will not only allow residents to appreciate the county, but the men and women who made it what it is.

"I strongly believe that our children and some grown-ups need to be able to see what the furnaces looked like and know that some of their ancestors worked at a furnace such as this," Hawkins said via e-mail. "Some of them even died at the furnace."

As it stands, the furnace is still in poor repair, with brush and trees surrounding it, and a large ditch making access to the furnace difficult. However, it's leaps and bounds ahead of the furnace depicted in the pictures taken before work began that Malone had meticulously filed in several binders on his table.

Still, the going is admittedly slow. According to Hawkins, the main financial challenge is keeping the authenticity of the furnace while still meeting the stricter legal standards of today.

"The buildings will be made of wood which at this time is not plentiful and is quite expensive," Hawkins said. "We will have to have permits to build and the building will have to be up to present day code."

"It will also have to be made to accommodate the disabled. All of this has to be done without sacrificing the way it was when it operated."

The project has no grant funding, and has been completely supported by donations; Malone himself has already donated $1,500 out-of-pocket. It took the group around $8,000 to purchase the furnace land, which has left their coffers relatively dry.

Though it's not the rosiest picture, the men have not given up hope. They are currently searching for donations, both monetary and labor, wherever they can find them.

Those interested in making Hawkins and Malone's dream a reality can contact Malone at 2753 County Road 51, Pedro, Ohio 45659, or by phone at (740) 643-2657.