Historical Marker #1373 in Calloway County commemorates Gerard Furnace, an important producer of pig iron in the far western part of Kentucky during the mid-nineteenth century.
The production of pig iron was well suited for Kentucky's rolling hills and abundant streams. Iron ore deposits in geographically diverse parts of the state encouraged the construction of furnaces from the mountains of eastern Kentucky to the far western reaches of the state.
Working an iron furnace was a rather simple process, but it required enormous amounts of labor and raw materials. Once ore was mined from earth deposits, it was combined with other minerals and then burned in large limestone stack furnaces. Many of the furnaces used slave labor to mine, haul, and process the required raw materials. Enslaved men also cut large amounts of timber, which were required for producing charcoal to fuel the furnaces. The pig iron that these early furnaces produced was most often sent to foundries at other locations to be further refined and cast into useable products such as kettles, plows, and nails.
Gerard Furnace was constructed in Calloway County in 1854 by Browder, Kennedy and Company. The furnace stood twenty-four feet high and operated on steam power. Gerard was a cold blast furnace, which means that the air produced by the steam-operated bellows was not heated before being blown into the furnace to heat the materials. Like many other early Kentucky furnaces, Gerard used charcoal as a heat source. Gerard apparently was sold to Bridge, Toronley and Company of neighboring Henry County, Tennessee, in 1857, who seems to have ceased its production the following year. Much of the pig iron produced at Gerard was shipped via steamboat on the adjacent Tennessee River to St. Louis, Missouri, and other Mississippi River foundries.
As iron production became essential to the American economy, large corporate iron foundries opened in states such as New York and Pennsylvania. Smaller Kentucky furnaces could not compete with the pace of the larger furnaces. During the nineteenth century, many essential resources in the iron-making process had been depleted in Kentucky. Timber and mineral deposits often proved not to be as abundant as believed, and thus many Kentucky locations were forced to cease operations.