Digging the past Elizabeth Furnace continues to be a prime archaeological site

By on January 23, 2013

By: JANET SCOUTEN Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer

Last Saturday at the Lititz Public Library, an estimated 120 people gathered in the community room for a free lecture sponsored by the Lititz Historical Foundation. The guest speaker was Daniel Snyder, who spoke about archeological finds at the Huber, Stiegel, Coleman and Elizabeth Furnace properties in Brickerville.

"Our partnership with the Lititz Historical Foundation is a perfect fit as we both have the mission of providing information and educational programs for the benefit of the local community," said Sallie Rihn, community relations coordinator for the Lititz Public Library. "It’s great that we can pool our resources to offer the public these programs on local history."

Amy Rhoads, events coordinator for the Historical Foundation, agreed: "Sallie Rihn and the staff at the library have been wonderful to work with, and this partnership has led to the lectures being well attended."

As he began his lecture, Snyder introduced his archaeological partner Jeff Dreisbach and welcomed the crowd, saying, "I see some familiar faces in the audience."

Speaking for about 45 minutes with a generous question and answer session afterward, Snyder began with an overview of the history and significance of the Elizabeth Furnace.

The village of Brickerville is where the area’s first blast furnace was built in 1750, by Jacob Huber of Lititz, to make cast iron from ore from the Cornwall mines. As iron production grew, reaching its peak about 1780, the work of supplying charcoal from area forests to feed the furnaces became an important related industry.

"An acre of timber was required for one day of furnace fuel," said Snyder, explaining that thousands of acres were timbered to produce the charcoal needed to the run the furnace over the years.

The remains of the furnace, which is adjacent to the Coleman-Stiegel Mansion, have been uncovered through painstaking archeological work over the past nine years.

"I’m sure we’ll be working on it for at least another nine," said Snyder.

Projecting photographs of the site, as well as explanatory drawings of the furnace operation, Snyder pointed out the archaeological sifter in one of the pictures.

"Boy, have we screened a lot of dirt!" said Snyder. "We’ve screened pretty much all of the dirt removed in the past nine years, working very carefully and cautiously to make sure we don’t miss anything."

Although a self-described archaeological novice, Snyder displayed an encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject.

"This site has been relatively undisturbed since 18th century," said Snyder. "It’s a real gem for local history."

The plantation surrounding the Elizabeth Furnace, owned and continually occupied by the Coleman family since 1775, is widely viewed as an 18th century treasure. Thirteen colonial-era buildings, constructed between 1746 and 1788, still stand in the 10-acre core of the property. In fact, the 1788 Coleman mansion is the newest standing structure on the property today, which has seen no new buildings erected since the 18th century.

Because of the large number of original buildings in remarkably unchanged condition, Elizabeth Furnace Plantation may be one of the best-preserved Colonial-period villages in the United States. But as Snyder carefully noted, the site stands on private property, and is not open to public tours or visitors.

According to the archaeology department at Millersville University, which has conducted three seasons of research in the area independent of Snyder and Dreisbach, the Elizabeth Furnace has great historical significance:

"Pennsylvania iron production at Elizabeth Furnace was a technologically and economically demanding endeavor. The adaptive nature of Elizabeth Furnace allowed it to participate in trade in the local, regional, national and trans-Atlantic markets, making it able adapt to market changes and shifts. The ability of the ironmasters to transition to new markets when old ones disappeared allowed the furnace to survive and thrive, before, during and after the American Revolution, and continue to remain a competitive part of the iron industry until the mid-19th century."

For Snyder, the greatest significance of this find and his continuing research is the glimpse it gives of "the ingenuity of our forefathers as they faced the challenges of building lives in the new world."

The next lecture in the free 2013 Lititz Historical Foundation series will also be held at the Lititz Public Library, located at 651 Kissel Hill Road. On Saturday, Feb. 16 at 1:30 p.m., guest speaker Pete Kirk will present a lecture on local privy digging and the historical treasures it unearths. More ELIZABETH FURNACE, page A2