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An American Tradition: Lodge Cast Iron

Posted on Wednesday, September 6, 2023 at 2:07 pm

NATHAN HAVENNER – Staff Writer

It has been 127 years since Joseph Lodge began his first cast iron foundry in the small town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Opened as the Blacklock Foundry in 1896, it would create jobs for the region and enjoy success until a fire in 1910 destroyed the foundry, but Joseph Lodge persevered.

Lodge Cast Iron was born out of the ashes of Blacklock Foundry just three months after the devastating fire, and the company remains a Tennessee icon and manufacturer of American made cookware to this day.

Larry Raydo, product commercialization manager, said he believes there are a few reasons why Lodge Cast Iron has remained a beloved American brand for more than 110 years.

“It is two-fold in my opinion,” Raydo said. “One, we have the commitment of the family. The family is unbelievable here, the stockholders, the family. They are just an incredible group of people and they genuinely care about the people who work here.”

Raydo said throughout its history, Lodge has reinvested in the company, which now employees more than 500 people.

“By doing so they are reinvesting in me as a person and all those folks out there as people, and also in our community,” he said. “I think our community support is part of what Lodge is.”

Lodge’s imprint on the South Pittsburg community is undeniable. In addition to its cast iron foundries, and Lodge offices, there is also Lodge Museum of Cast Iron, which officially opened in 2022.

The museum, located just adjacent to the foundries at 220 3rd St. in South Pittsburg, takes visitors through the entire process of creating Lodge Cast Iron, and also documents the history of the company through a series of historic artifacts.

In addition to historic pieces of Lodge Cast iron, the museum showcases some historic American Cast Iron made by other manufacturers, a tribute to the thousands of cast iron foundries that were once scattered throughout the United States. These include Griswold Manufacturing Company, Wapak cast iron and Wagner Ware cast iron.

A hands on exhibit showcases the different materials used to create Lodge Cast Iron, such as scrap steel, pig iron and recycled castings. Children can operate a large magnet to lower it down and collect the materials, a small-scale replica of what is done just yards away at the foundry.

Don’t forget to take a picture with the world’s largest cast iron skillet, measuring over 18 ft. from handle to handle, the skillet weighs in at 14,360 pounds and is large enough to cook up to 650 eggs at once.

The museum, which is open 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily, is housed in the same building as the first ever Lodge Factory Store, opened in 1994. The store features a full line of Lodge products, including skillets, bakeware, Dutch ovens, factory seconds and cast iron accessories.

Raydo said he believes another reason for Lodge’s continued success and popularity is its ability to innovate.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929 and demand for cookware and appliances died off after a decade of steady growth, Lodge switched gears and began manufacturing cast iron novelties such as garden gnomes and animal figures.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Lodge began the process of switching from an operation where every piece of cast iron was hand poured, to modern automated pouring.

While today Lodge Cast Iron is known for its pre-seasoned cookware, it was not until the early 2000s that every piece of Lodge Cast Iron left the foundry with its pre-seasoning. The process involves spraying each piece of cast iron with canola oil and baking it at high temperatures. Prior to this process, each piece had to be seasoned at home after purchase.

“We were the first ones to come out with the full line of seasoned cookware,” Raydo said. “Now, when we first started it was only going to be our 17 top core items, but within probably six months that was changed to everything because we realized this is a game changer.”

In 2017, Lodge opened its newest foundry known as the Third Street Foundry. This 127,000 Square Ft. foundry increased the company’s manufacturing capacity by 75%.

Raydo said from the time the molten iron is poured into the mold until it is boxed up and ready to go to the distribution center down the road it takes only two and a half hours.

The process to make a piece of Lodge Cast Iron begins with melting a combination of pig iron, recycled steel and castings from the factory into a furnace that holds up to 10 metric tons of liquid iron.

“It takes 45 minutes for a 22,000-pound charge of metal to liquefy,” Raydo said.

The liquid iron is then poured into a sand mold with a Danish molding machine called a Disamatic. Each machine is capable of making up to 350-400 molds per hour. The cookware makes its way down the line, where any remaining sand is shaken off to be used again. 

The cookware then goes through a multi-step cleaning process before it is hung on a conveyer for the seasoning process before it is packaged and shipped.

While today Lodge Cast Iron is a worldwide brand, America’s favorite cast iron manufacturer remains true to its Volunteer State heritage.

“That is what it is, and we have been around a long time because of that,” Raydo said. “It is kind of cool to be part of that kind of legacy.”