Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee
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Cumberland Furnace is an unincorporated community in northern Dickson County, Tennessee, United States, largely immediately west of State Route 48. It was the site of a large 19th century iron works, initiated by Nashville, Tennessee founder James Robertson and later operated by the "The Iron Master of Middle Tennessee", Montgomery Bell, among others. The cannonballs used by Andrew Jackson's troops in the Battle of New Orleans were cast here. Prior to the American Civil War, a considerable amount of slave labor was used at the iron works, giving the area a population of African Americans disproportionate to that of the wider area. After the Civil War a Nashville newspaper recounted the story of a racially based confrontation in 1868, during the Reconstruction period. The only operating school for blacks in Dickson County was located here at this time.
The Reconstruction era at first brought considerable prosperity to the community. Northern investors, including former Union army officers who had learned the area during the war, modernized the iron works; one of these was Anthony Vanleer (or Van Leer) of the Van Leer family, for whom the nearby town of Vanleer, Tennessee was named. Many blacks who had formerly been forced to work the site as slaves were now employed as free men. The iron industry was rich enough that one of the managers was wealthy enough to build the locally famous Drouillard Mansion, one of the era's largest and most luxurious home of the area, on a hilltop overlooking the village.
The iron industry operated sporadically following the Reconstruction era until finally being closed for good in 1923, unable to compete effectively on a steady basis with larger and more modern facilities located elsewhere, especially those in Birmingham, Alabama, except during times of crisis and shortage such as World War I. The building of a railroad spur into the town from Vanleer along the Mineral Branch of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was insufficient to save the enterprise. Rail service ended altogether in 1938 and the tracks were eventually taken up although the rather ornate depot (which replaced an earlier, simpler one) still remains.
The Great Depression led to economic conditions in the Upper South even worse than those experienced by much of the U.S. as a whole; many residents left for nearby cities such as Nashville and Clarksville while others migrated to Detroit, St. Louis, Cinncinniati, and other industrial centers "up North". Vigorous post- World War I enforcement of "Jim Crow" made conditions even worse for blacks, who also left the area in large numbers for the hope of better times in the North.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a growing interest was expressed by residents of the area in its history and efforts at historic preservation of the remains of the iron works and associated buildings began. In the 1990s a nonprofit group called "Historic Village of Cumberland Furnace" was put together to stimulate both interest in the area as a cultural resource and to develop it for purposes of tourism. The Drouillard Mansion was restored and has become a therapeutic retreat center called Onsite. The historic preservation efforts suffered a setback when the historic Masonic lodge hall burned in 2002, but other restoration and re-creation efforts are ongoing.
A History of Dickson County, Tennessee by Robert E. Corlew, Tennessee Historical Commission, Nashville, 1956, reprinted 1980