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Fayette Company Store, 1981 | by joeldinda
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Fayette Company Store, 1981

Around the time Jackson Iron built Fayette's charcoal iron village, the British iron industry closed down its last charcoal furnace. According to the British iron masters, charcoal iron was expensive and technologically obsolete; moreover the devastation caused by the method was considered unacceptable. What was different in Michigan?

 

In June of 1981 I was halfway through my long-delayed senior year of college, and had just turned in a senior paper which I'd originally expected to address that question. But I soon discovered:

* the answer was relatively obvious,

* someone had already written that paper, and

* I knew that paper's author.

 

So I'd adjusted my focus, and spent spring term examining the business infrastructure supporting mining on the Marquette Range. That, too, was inspired by Fayette.

 

Maria Quinlan Leiby's SUNY Oneonta MA thesis "Charcoal Iron-Making at Fayette, Michigan, 1867-1890" asked my question, and concluded that America really was different. Forests were abundant, the patent-impaired American steel industry hadn't fully taken root, environmental concerns weren't nearly so prevalent, and (most important) the engineers running America's railroads preferred charcoal iron for making rail car wheels. (Evidently coke-fired iron wheels were more prone to fracture.) Others have since argued that Fayette and its Pennsylvania competitors were advancing the technology and had grown more efficient than the abandoned British operations.

 

Maria was (is) a bicyclist, and we'd first met at a conference some years before. We'd occasionally ridden together, and I'd worked with her husband, another bike club president, on bicycling causes. I'd known she was a state-employed historian, but hadn't known she'd studied Fayette. It was a bit of a shock, but a pleasant one. Small world.

 

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A slightly-related story, posted today on a dabbler's journal.

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Taken in June 1981