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Cattail Foundry: Casting Iron in Gordonville, Pennsylvania

Cattail Foundry

A peacock cries, horses clop past, and Ben King’s hammer rings. It’s Wednesday morning at the Cattail Foundry in Gordonville, PA, and the Amish grandfather and his family members are hard at work.

“You can get Dad involved. He’s the know-it-all,” jokes Ben’s son, Emmanuel King. Dorcas and I have just arrived to do another “Made in Lancaster County” interview, and this time we’re visiting a family-owned business that manufactures cast iron goods, as well as bronze and aluminum.

Outside the countryside is beautiful with a sunny May day. Inside the workshop is dim and filled with tools, buckets, patterns, and stacks of cast iron products.

Cast iron clock

At Good’s Store, we sell cast iron quoits made by the foundry. But it turns out that’s only a small part of their business.

Ben works on a pattern as he explains what his foundry does. 

“We make cast-iron wheels and treadles for treadle sewing machines. We also make manure spreader gears. In bronze and aluminum, there’s a lot of parts for old cars.” Cattail Foundry has made cast iron railings and steps for Washington D.C., paddles for ice cream freezers, and cast iron fences for historical graveyards.

“It’s almost all custom,” Ben tells us. “You just never know— there’s just so much different stuff. There’s hundreds and hundreds of different things.

“Like that pattern there. I didn’t do nothing with it yet,” says Ben, pointing to wooden pattern propped up against a post. “That comes from California. Guy wants to make small governors.”

“And this one,” Ben uses his hammer to tap the pattern he’s working on. “I’m not sure where it comes from. It’s to make water impellers for a pump.

“Yesterday a guy came in and said he wants forty-eight of the wheels and the little components that hold the wheels that go in the window sash to let the window go up and down. Restoration, you know. That’s going to be something else. Forty-eight of those little wheels!”

Cattail Foundry has made cast iron parts for Strasburg Railroad, and steam engines all over the country. “We’re making brakes for Cass Railroad down in Virginia now.”

“I’m not trying to brag,” adds Ben. “I’m just telling you how it is. But if it’s way big production, we aren’t into it. We’re trying to help the smaller guys.” Customers with large orders are directed to bigger foundries, where parts can be produced by the thousands.

"We are thankful to be able to help so many people with their needs. But we also want to obey the Ten Commandments, so we don't make graven images of living creatures, like cats or dogs."  

As Ben gives us a tour of the foundry, he tells us how Cattail Foundry was started. “I wanted to find a cast iron grate for my steam engine. So I went to visit a small foundry in Clay.

“Ed Stahl owned that foundry. He was born in a Pike Mennonite family. In 1942, Ed was drafted in the war. He didn’t want to serve in the military, but he had no choice.” During the war, Ed, serving as a non-combatant, saw a cupola furnace used for melting iron. After returning home, Ed decided to build his own furnace for casting iron.

When Ben visited Ed's foundry, Ed told him he needed a pattern to create a mold for the grate. By the time Ben made a pattern and returned, Ed's foundry was boarded up. Ben tracked Ed down and Ed showed Ben how to build his own furnace.  

"Ed would come to help us, coming by in his old red truck. I'd offer to pay him, but Ed would always say, 'No, you don't have to pay me. But when that poor widow comes in for a new grate, you don't charge her.'"

Cattail Foundry began in 1976 on the family farm, the same decade most of the local foundries closed. “In 1972 was the Agnes flood. That flooded a lot of the mines and rather than pumping those mines out, they just went to other countries and it was cheaper than what we could mine it here.”

“We buy pig iron from Russia or Austria. That’s crazy, because right down there in the Blue Mountains, there’s all the iron we would want. They say in Cornwall if you hit a rock with your lawn mower, it will spark.”

Over the years Ben’s business grew larger, and he gained more equipment and built a bigger furnace. Today his sons and grandsons work in the foundry. “We have eight full-time workers. My son Reuben does the farming. He helps us on the days we pour, and we help him bring in the hay. It's a trade.

"We want to give all the glory to God. He's been so good to us." 

One story from many years ago sticks in Ben's memory. "One fall, an old bachelor from Ephrata came for a new grate. He came by buggy just before dinner. I insisted that I feed his horse, and that he stay for the noon meal. 

"Then it started snowing, and it snowed all afternoon. The man lived with his sister, and he drove his horse and buggy through the snow, all the way back to Ephrata. How glad his sister must have been to see him return home!

"Today there's a Wal-Mart where that brother and sister once lived. I often think about that story when I go up the 322."

Ben shows us another room where he presses patterns into the sand to make molds for castings.

Making molds

Ben says he has to make "holes". Below is a sand mold of the inside of a car manifold.

Sand mold of car manifold

Ben makes his patterns and molds by hand, although some customers now bring in molds made by 3D printers. “They can tell the computer to make a mold with sand. It takes all day and all night. They bring them in, and we take it apart and add gates so we can pour the iron in. It’s a whole new world.”

There’s small gas-fired furnace used for melting brass and aluminum. But that furnace is only fired about six times a year. Cattail’s main business is casting iron.

The cast iron furnace is a brick cupola that Ben built himself. By law, they can only fire it once a week.

“We pack the furnace with iron, coke, and limestone. I light the fire at eight o’clock in the morning, and we keep feeding it all day. We usually pour six tons of iron in a day, but we can do seven.”

Cast iron furnace

Fire burns inside the cupola, and about one o’clock in the afternoon, it’s time to turn on the bellows and the crew of workers gets ready to pour the hot iron into the molds they have been preparing all week. “Once the iron is hot enough, you have to pour right away.”

Below are the ladles used in pouring.

Ladles used in pouring

Man with apron

Today isn’t a pouring day at the foundry, instead the workers are busy preparing molds for sewing machine wheels and treadles. “The Amish in New York and out west, they still use treadle sewing machines,” Ben explains.

The sand used in the casting is black with use, like the black lava sand in Hawaii. It takes two men to carry one of the prepared molds.

Men shoveling sand

 Workers in foundry

Above and below, sand molds for making sewing machine wheels.

Sand molds

We go up the steps to where the furnace is filled. Here are mounds of coke, pig iron, and salvaged scrap iron, including defective castings. “When you re-cast iron, it get more refined,” Ben explains. Any sand or other impurities is separated off as slag.

Top of furnace

Cattail is running into a supply issue. “We were buying broken iron from up in Reading by the truckload. Yesterday I called them, wanting more, and they’re out of business! No more broken iron. So what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to try all car rotators. We’re using some of them already.” There’s a large stack of rusty rotators waiting to go in the furnace. There’s no shortage of car rotators, and Ben is hoping he can find another supplier of scrap iron.

Scrap iron

Above: scrap iron from Reading. Below: coke from West Virginia.

Piles of coke

Ben isn’t in danger of running out of customers. “We never advertised, except to print business cards, and we get all the work we want.

“There is another small foundry down in Churchtown—owner's name is Peachy. He’s got a couple of guys in there. They’re doing it with an electric furnace, they’re melting with electric. He’s an Amish fellow with a couple of Mennonite boys working for him.”

“He’s not competition. We’re just helping each other. It would be competition, but there’s so much work. Just for instance, the 32 choppers, meat grinders. They’re a pretty good size. And everybody wants those things. They can’t be used in commercial kitchens because they aren’t stainless steel. But there’s so many people that want to butcher themselves. They’re still making the old sausage stuffers, too.

“There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Steam engine

Barnyard

Photos taken by Dorcas Lichtenberger.

View cast iron quoits made at Cattail Foundry here. 

The stakes for pitching quoits are also handmade in Lancaster County. Find the quoit stakes here


7 comments

  • It is very interesting and informative to learn about this process. I have worked with Clay and Ceramic Kilns for 50 years. This family has a very special skill and it should be honored and appreciated. Lots of hard work too! Thank you for these articles.

    Mel Strong
  • I really enjoy your articles. We used to visit the Lancaster area yearly, but as I just hit 90 and am on full time oxygen usage we can’t go there any more.

    Jim LaCelle
  • I love these stories about the businesses in Lancaster. They are so interesting.

    Janet
  • Fascinating article.
    How we wish we had such committed and skilled artisans in NSW. Australia

    Alain Albert
  • Cattail Foundry Is A True National Treasure. Thank You For Helping To Restore The Nation’s Historical Past. Do To The Rare And Special Work They Do This Business Should be Overwhelmingly Supported By All Our
    Government Agencies And Should Be Left Alone To Do Their Important Work.

    Bruce Sheaffer

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