Catoctin Furnace / Johnson Brothers

While the first homesteads that would become Mechanicstown were coming together in the 1740s and 1750s, a couple miles south – at roughly the same time – a group of brothers collaborated to create the Catoctin Furnace. The most well-known of the Johnson brothers from Maryland is Thomas, who was a celebrated figure in Colonial then post-Colonial Maryland. As an illustration of Thomas Johnson’s significance, after George Washington died in December 1799, Johnson delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

In the years preceding the revolution, Thomas and a partner acquired deeds to large tracts of land from which they could extract minerals, like iron ore, which they anticipated would fuel the country’s development. Back then, of course, you didn’t go to Home Depot and buy a hammer or shovel off a wall. Instead, someone in the community transformed the raw material into useable products, like blocks of iron, then into tools, or a skilled artisan made the tools almost on demand. During the Colonial era, custom dictated that iron goods, like pots for cooking and tools for working the land, were purchased from England, which eventually became not just impractical but a burden. People figured out they could make it themselves, especially with deposits of the raw materials in ample supply. So, small-scale forges came into being for tasks like building and maintenance of mills or blacksmithing, and villages often had a tradesman who could produce what his neighbors needed. Thomas Johnson and others of similar intellect and means realized there was an entrepreneurial opportunity to manufacture on a larger scale.

In 1768 Johnson and a partner obtained 100 acres in northern Frederick County from Lord Baltimore for the purpose of establishing a furnace. After serving as Maryland’s first governor between 1777 and 1779, Johnson moved to Frederick permanently. Two of his brothers, Baker and Roger – who both had studied law in their older brother’s Annapolis office – already lived in the area. Baker moved there in 1776 to start a law practice. At the same time, a third brother, James, was active in a venture to build a furnace in newly created Washington County but he also moved to Frederick to join his brothers in a partnership. Eventually, Thomas Johnson recorded a deed for 7,700 acres for a property called “Mountain Tract.” He and his brothers set about constructing the Catoctin Furnace to produce pig iron, a raw material from which numerous tools or products could be forged, and it began operating in 1776, ironically.

The furnace was what you would imagine – a giant oven. The operator needed tremendous heat to melt and mold the iron ore into a usable form, which could be blanks of iron or casts of actual tools and implements. The Thurmont area and Mountain Tract proved ideal: the ore lode was rich, a vast forest covered the mountains, and the streams offered power for machinery, such as bellows. For its first 100 years the furnace relied on charcoal as its fuel, and the Catoctin forest provided the timber harvests that workers transformed into charcoal. Although Thomas Johnson and his brothers served in military roles for a time during the Revolutionary War – James, Roger, and Baker all served as officers under their brother’s command – a more significant contribution by them to the war effort appears to be casting cannon balls and cannons at the Catoctin Furnace.

James operated the furnace until 1793. He had acquired 1000 acres of land nearby and built a homestead for himself called Springfield and moved into the house in 1793 as well. It still stands today and operates as Springfield Manor. James died in 1809. Thomas appears to have been an investor only and never involved in the operation itself, and the remaining lawyer-brothers weren’t iron masters, so they eventually leased operations to partners Benjamin Blackford and Thomas Thornburgh between 1801 and 1811. Baker Johnson become the sole owner in 1803, and he built the mansion called Auburn in 1805, which still stands. Baker died in June 1811, and his will expressed a desire that Blackford would purchase the furnace; however, it eventually sold to brothers Willoughby and Thomas Mayberry in August of the same year, ending the Johnson brothers involvement altogether.

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