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An Investment in Iron |

An Investment in Iron

Jerry Don is one of 220 employees who make cast iron skillets and an array of accompanying products at Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. His grandfather, John King, started working at Lodge in the 1930s. Jerry Don’s father, Albert, worked there. Three of Jerry Don’s uncles worked there. Jerry Don’s brother worked there.

Lodge itself is a family business, now in the hands of the fourth generation of Lodges and Kellermanns. Dating to 1896, it is the oldest family-owned cookware company in America.


Jerry Don King took a job at Lodge immediately after graduating from South Pittsburg High School, and he has spent his entire working life with the company, nearly 40 years. He says the company owners told him that if he planned to stay on at Lodge, he should learn about everything in the plant, a little at a time. He took the advice.

“I picked up welding when I got a chance,” he says. “The same with the cutting torch. I’ve gone from packing to finishing to the foundry.”

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Working at Lodge means constant learning. While the iconic cast iron skillet remains the centerpiece of the business, the product line has expanded greatly over the years, says Mark Kelly, PR and Advertising Manager for Lodge. A former newspaper and magazine editor, Mark has been a cast-iron fan all his life. His grandparents’ Dutch oven, given to them as a wedding present in 1918, is still in use.

Lodge Manufacturing was started by an Englishman, Joseph Lodge, who walked from Chattanooga to South Pittsburg, some 30 miles, in search of a place to locate a foundry.

“Joseph Lodge always said there are a thousand ways to make cast iron wrong and only one way to do it right,” says Mark, who describes what takes place in the foundry as “Middle Ages technology,” automated. From the pouring of the molten metal to the packing of the product, the entire process now takes about 90 minutes, and the foundry’s capacity ranges from 800 to 1,600 pieces per hour.

Like most every industry, the making of cast iron has its own language. Buckets are bulls. Each pour of molten metal is a charge. A key to the whole process, though, is simply sand. “It’s ancient technology,” Mark says.

Sand can withstand the intense heat of the liquid iron, which is poured into molds at temperatures between 2,480 and 2,520 degrees. Vibrating, cleaning, tumbling, and blasting with fine steel shot removes any excess sand. The sand itself and the steel shot are all recycled. Scrap steel and cast iron are recycled as well.

“We recycle virtually everything,” Mark says. “Foundries have always been sustainable. “We use that sand over and over, and then it goes to line landfills, ponds, and into mortar for bricks.”

The company started seasoning its products in 2002, and by 2007, all Lodge products were leaving the foundry in seasoned form.

Mark Kelly compares the seasoning to what goes on in a car wash. Vegetable oil is sprayed onto both sides of the products with electrostatic spray guns. The chemistry is simple: The positively charged oil atoms bond with the negatively charged iron atoms. The familiar black patina results when the products are then baked in a high-temperature oven.

Each generation, it seems, is rediscovering the benefits of cast iron cookware, which only gets better with age. “Doctors say if you have anemia, cook with cast iron,” says Mark. “It’s such a simple thing.”

Lodge runs several outlet stores, including one adjacent to the foundry. It’s a favorite stop for visitors to the National Cornbread Festival, held in downtown South Pittsburg every April. Lodge and Martha White Flour are the original sponsors of the event.

“The downtown area was dying,” says Mark. “The bypass took the traffic away. The festival was a way to reinvigorate the city.”

While cast iron cookware is evolving, with additions such as enamel coating in various colors, Lodge has achieved a perfect balance between keeping up with trends in technology and tastes and yet staying true to the old methods.

“We make a number-one quality product,” says Jerry Don King. “That’s what has gotten people’s attention over the years. When you buy cast iron cookware, you’re buying a partner for life, something you can pass down to your children. It’s one of the smartest investments a person can make.”

Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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