Around one of the large bends of the Tennessee River, on Chattanooga's west side, sits South Pittsburg, Tennessee. This small community, named for its link to the Pennsylvania metal industry, has forged an identity steeped in the melting of ore. The story of South Pittsburg is tied closely to the story of its most well-known company -- Lodge Manufacturing.
In 1896, ago, Joseph Lodge came to South Pittsburg looking for a job and stability for his family. Utilizing two of the region's most plentiful resources -- iron from the mountains and labor from its residents -- Lodge began making cast iron cookware under the banner of The Blackstock Foundry, named for his close friend and pastor. Ten years later, Blackstock was leveled after a devastating fire, forcing Lodge and his employees to start over in a new facility just a few blocks south. Scrapping the Blackstock name, the company became Lodge Manufacturing.
Cast-iron skillets have been used for centuries, as cooking was done primarily over outdoor and campfire flames, hearths and stoves. As years and technology progressed and the non-stick movement expanded, cast-iron cookware was largely marginalized. But Lodge wouldn't, and couldn't, waver. It remained true to quality cookware, and most importantly, its process.
In the more than a century that Lodge has been in business, an enduring and rich legacy has emerged in this community, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. It is the only manufacturer of cast iron cookware in the United States. For the 270 foundry employees and the Lodge family, it's reflected in their emphasis on quality.
"I think one of the reasons we are still here is because quality is our top priority," says Henry Lodge, the great-great grandson of the company's founder and Lodge's chief operating officer. "We know that the utensil that a man or a woman uses to feed their family has got to be the best there is." That quality, Lodge maintains, is the key to survival.
Chapter 1: From Burn to Box
The process keeps Larry Raydo, Lodge's director of quality assurance, up at night. A Pennsylvania native and veteran of manufacturing, Raydo gets excited talking about making things well. To maintain the level of quality that Lodge is known for, Raydo says all employees are given the autonomy to determine if a piece of cookware hasn't met strict internal standards.
"It sounds trite, but it's real here," he says. "Anybody at Lodge can throw a casting away as scrap, no questions asked. If there is something coming through on the line they don't think is right, they can stop production right there."
Production begins at a far corner of the Lodge foundry, in a towering heap of recycled steel and scrap iron and a variety of iron known as "pig" iron. To maintain company standards, every piece of recycled metal it sources from brokers is inspected for radiation exposure and chemical makeup. The steel and iron is loaded into 10-ton furnaces, which melt the steel at a temperature just south of 2,500 degrees. Once the steel and iron is melted and mixed, the molten iron is poured into Lodge's distinct molds, made of tightly compacted sand, the only material able to withstand the extreme temperatures. As the casts cool and move across the conveyor belts, they're sent to the shaker pan, which jerks the sand loose from each iron casting, revealing Lodge's iconic cookware.
The key to Lodge cookware lies in its seasoning. Each piece is sent through an oven, glazed and baked with a proprietary oil base, giving the cookware its signature ability to retain heat and trap flavor while it's cooking. And by design, each time the cookware is used, it enhances its ability to trap heat and sustain flavor.
"It's all natural," Raydo says of the seasoning. "The longer you use a piece of cast-iron cookware, the better the seasoning will get naturally."
After the seasoning, each skillet is cleaned, rinsed, packed and sent off for shipping, to Lodge's roughly 1,000 retailers, including Walmart (WMT), Cracker Barrel (CBRL) and Williams-Sonoma (WSM). It's a two-hour process, from melt to packaging.
Chapter Two: Generations
Dotting the landscape of American manufacturing, there are numerous stories just like the one of Jerry Don King. King has spent 38 years at Lodge, beginning in the packing department, and has held virtually every position on the foundry floor -- twice.
The King story starts with his grandfather, who spent 42 years with the company, and his father, who spent 39 years. Three uncles and two brothers worked here, for a combined 250 years of service to the company, by his count.
A modest, soft-spoken Tennessee native, he is a utility mechanic, an integral part of keeping the Lodge foundry's heartbeat healthy. Early every morning, King and his co-workers check the plant's machinery to ensure it's running smoothly, and when the massive machinery breaks down, King and his team strike quickly to get the line up and running again.
"If something breaks down, we get right on top of it," King said. "We've gotta get this machinery going as soon as we can, because the main thing is keeping everything going. It's a great feeling, knowing the production is going along."
Over the course of King's 38 years, save for a weeklong layoff when business slowed, King knows the value in what he and his fellow workers do. "They've got us making a quality cast iron skillet," he said. "It's turned out being one of the best-selling skillets in the world on account of the quality."
For Henry Lodge, there is realness to the people on the foundry floor; something he says is clearly reflected in the cookware they make. "We're real people. We make stuff for a living," Lodge said. "We're not a service industry. We're not an advertising agency that creates something that comes and goes and it's gone. Cast iron cookware will be around for another 100 years, I think there is something about it being real, and based in the earth."
Chapter Three: The Lodge Legacy
Henry Lodge knows that over a century of tradition sits on the shoulders of him and his leadership team every day. His cousin, Bob Kellerman, serves as Lodge's CEO, and together they work hard to shepherd the business into more contemporary waters.
The company has just completed the first phase of its three-part expansion plan, which included adding a third production line and a melt center. The expansion is part of the company's strategy to aggressively evolve with the demands of the industry as well as maintain a strong sense of the environmental responsibility.
Lodge Manufacturing accepted the federal government's Energy Star Challenge to reduce energy by 10 percent over five years -- and it met the goal four years ahead of schedule. It also fully recycles the sand used for molds, the bushing steel in castings and the oil used in seasoning. Lodge says it's all key to positioning the company for the next generation of employees and sustaining the community where they live.
"I think the challenge for those of us, my cousin Bob and I, our generation, this business, is how do we leave the next generation, what do we leave them?" he said. "All of those environmental concerns are very important to us, because our fellow employees and neighbors live, you can see houses from here.
When Lodge went off to college, he had no plans to return to Lodge, but the pull of the family business was too strong. Following a summer working in the foundry, he resisted again, but now the factory and the people are the centerpiece of his everyday life.
"Coming here, and making contact with the people that are doing the heavy lifting, the hard work, it almost always brings me up," Lodge says. "Because it's going, it's vibrant. There's hot iron, things are moving. There's nothing just static. It's active, it's living, and it's an entity all its own."
For a small town, buried in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, there's an immense sense of pride in what the people of Lodge Manufacturing do every day. It's pride that is tied to the family aspect of cookware, something used in kitchens and on dining room tables across the globe. Drawing on the rich resources of the region, and the shoulders of a community versed in the value of hard work, Lodge understands the premium of quality and keeping the legacy alive that was ignited by his great-grandfather over 100 years ago.
"There are a lot of foundries in the United States, a lot of foundries doing great work," Lodge says. "But very few make a product the consumer actually touches, and uses now. There are a lot of castings in the car they drive every day, but here, it's something that's real. That people understand."
And if by chance his great-grandfather were able to see what the little foundry once known as Blackstock has grown into? "I think Joe Lodge would be pretty impressed with where we are," he says. "I think he started it to have a little business to support his family, to employ some of the folks that needed jobs, and we're still doing all of that, but we're certainly doing it on a scale that I'm not sure Joe Lodge would have ever imagined."
Andrew Iden is an Atlanta based freelance writer and producer. He spent eight years as a writer/producer for HLN's Nancy Grace and now works as a freelance news editor/producer with CNN and Mixed Bag Media. He's written for CNN and The Bluegrass Situation, and he was a newspaper reporter for six years in northern Virginia before moving south. Follow him on Twitter at @AJIden and www.andrewiden.com.