After observing these for most of my life, I recently felt compelled to learn more about these iron fences; particularly why my family and neighbors felt the need to fence in the dearly departed.
As a rule, these fences were typically either cast iron, wrought iron, or a combination of both. As for cast iron, the complete fence could be purchased fully-made and then assembled on site. These were catalog items (more to come on that, below).
The wrought iron fence was usually made by the local blacksmith and might include some commercial cast iron parts such as pinnacles and such. It could also be fabricated from commercial bar stock, a style not nearly as attractive, in my opinion. However, it’s no small miracle that so many of these graveyard guardians remain, given the fact that many iron fences disappeared in the scrap drives of World War II.
Many of the fences I’ve discovered in the cemeteries of northeast Georgia are of the cast iron variety, and they bear the ubiquitous “Stewart Shield,” which indicates they were made by Stewart Iron Works, a Kentucky iron manufacturing company. And after learning of Stewart Iron Work’s lengthy and lucrative contract to sell fences through Sears & Roebuck (and knowing how much the Sears Catalog meant in our own home), I can only assume that many of the local cemetery fences were not derived directly from the shores of Kentucky (or Ohio), but purchased at the local Sears store (or ordered from the annual catalog, before it made its way to the family privy).
Nevertheless, regardless of from whence the fences came, Stewart Iron Works was forging them, and they were a forge to be reckoned with.
This history and curious relationship between Stewart, Sears & Roebuck and my own Southern ancestors was enough to start me digging. Online searches and ultimately, a phone call with company sales rep, Scott Wall, were more than enough to pique my interest all the more. It didn’t take long to blow the rust off of some pretty fascinating iron fence (as well as Kentucky) history.
In the early 1800’s, the Stewart family made its way from Scotland, to settle in Virginia and ultimately, Louisville, Kentucky. Two sons of Thomas Stewart became steamboat captains. A third, Richard C. Stewartor R.C. as he was commonly knownlearned the blacksmith trade. R.C.’s sons, Richard C. Junior and his brother Wallace A., followed in their father’s footsteps; they learned the blacksmithing trade and eventually opened their own ironworks business. That company would become known as Stewart Iron Works and shortly would be producing wrought iron fence, furniture, ornamental pieces, gates, and even jail cells for the entire country.
Stewart was established in 1886, and it is the second oldest continuously operating ironworks in the country. It has also been an important part of Covington, Kentucky history and is one of 45 century-old businesses in the state (as recently recognized by the Kentucky Humanities Council). At the turn of the (past) century, it was known as the “World’s Largest Fencemaker.” And, in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, it was awarded the Grand Prize and Gold Medal Merit for iron fencing and lawn furniture.
During World War I and until 1928, Stewart also formed the United States Motor Truck Company and produced one-, two- and three-ton trucks for the U.S. Army. Although used mainly by the Armed Forces, the first truck off the assembly line went to John Craig, a contractor and former mayor of Covington. Some were even reportedly delivered as far away as Australia.
Following the war, Stewart returned to fence products and sold them in the Sears and Roebuck catalog for 23 years. It is through this alliance that families around the country became aware of and became retail customers of The Stewart Iron Works. This also included the rural parts of the country, such as my own area of north Georgia.
Upon a walking-tour of virtually any cemetery behind even the smallest of north Georgia churches, one is likely to find a plot or two, surrounded by low-rising, decorative iron fencing. And if you get close, amid the pine-tree pollen and years of rust, you’re probably going to find the Stewart Shield adorning the gate on that fence.
The popularity of the Sears & Roebuck catalog and the density of small churches in the South, was the perfect combination for unprecedented sales of decorative cast iron fencing in Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
In the 1930’s a Stewart Jail Cell Division produced jail cells for most of the high security locations in the country. Places like Alcatraz, Leavenworth, Marion and Sing Sing were Stewart customers, as well as Fort Knox. Yes, the Fort Knoxthey commissioned Stewart to craft the iconic front gates standing today at its entrance.
Stewart’s Jail Cell Division has been arguably its most colorful and highest-profile, capturing many news stories, as well as the imaginations of the people. Folklore claims that in the early 1930’s, a barge lost its load of jail cells headed for Alcatraz; some say they lie at the bottom of San Francisco Bay to this very day.
During the Second World War, Stewart again shifted to wartime production and provided portable landing equipment for the U.S. Air Force.
The Stewart Shield can be found on the railroad entrance gates at the Panama Canal, the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Lt. Governor’s Office on St. Thomas Island, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Museum, the Taft Museum, The U.S. House of Representatives, and most recently, the front gate at the White House. Plus, it can be found on grave fencing in all 50 states, including Hawaii and Alaska.
The history and heritage of the Stewart Iron Works Company is certainly rich with detail and notoriety, and it is a well-deserved cause for pride among the citizens of Kentucky. As for the north Georgia residents who have long admired and utilized Stewart’s iconic fenceswell, we feel privileged to have been a part of the Stewart success story, as well.
Ricky Fitzpatrick is a musician, author, worship leader, and photographer. He lives and writes in the tiny community of Apple Valley in northeast Georgia, with his wife, children and occasional lizard.