Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Elverson, Pennsylvania:
When my Scottish friend Neil Rippingale invited me to join him and another friend Dale Mitchell, to teach, my heart leapt for joy. As training program manager for the Dry Stone Conservancy, part of Neil’s mission is to educate and train people in this venerable ancient craft. His vast knowledge, infectious enthusiasm, patience and mercurial wit all combine to make him a great teacher and ambassador for the craft.
Hopewell furnace is one example of an American 19th century rural “iron plantation”. The compound includes a blast furnace, blacksmith shop, company store, working housing and several auxillary structures. The site’s most bountiful time was during the 1820 -1840 period with a production boom during the American Civil War.
The dry stone retaining wall where we taught is on a former “raceway”. The “race” was a narrow water channel at the base of the wall. Over one mile in length from it’s lake origin in the woods, the water flowed from the raceway into a millpond above the furnace. The water then flowed down a trough onto a 24′ diameter water wheel which pumped the bellows – rapidly forcing air to accelerate the firing of the blast furnace.
We first gave classroom orientations on the basics of safety and stonework to the students. Our first 2 groups were school students aging from 13 – 17 years old. Some were initially hesitant, but their confidence grew as the days passed. The last group consisted of students in a 2 year degrred program in masonry at a vocational school in nearby Lancaster. They were conversant with all types of masonry systems including the wonderful world of historic lime mortars. Having had more hands-on experience, they dove right into working with the tools and stone.
At the end of our stay in Pennsylvania, Neil, Dale and myself gave birth to an idea over dinner. We established a dry stone scholarship fund. The scholarship provides the means for bringing aspiring masons to Kentucky for the dry stone workshop, walling competition and certification events. This annual festival is held every Autumn at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Shaker Village is a 3,000 acre living history museum and National Historic Landmark near Harrodsburg, Kentucky.