Iron Pots and Kettles
Nature Bulletin No. 544-A November 16, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
IRON POTS AND KETTLES
At Possum Trot Hill, on US 150 west of Danville, a huge iron kettle
squats as a monument to what was once an important industry in
Illinois. It is one of 80 used from 1824 to 1831 for boiling down brine
from salt springs in that vicinity. Salt was a luxury then. About a bushel
was produced from one kettleful (100 gallons) of brine and that was
worth more than 100 bushels of oats.
Those 80 monsters came from Kentucky where iron works had been
established to make the utensils and implements desperately needed by
pioneer families. About half of them had come up through the
Cumberland Gap, on horseback, with only a rifle, an ax, a pot for
cooking, some bedding and the clothes on their backs. Every family, in
addition to a skillet or spider, and a Dutch oven, coveted a big kettle for
making salt, soap, candles and maple syrup, butchering hogs, rendering
lard, boiling clothes on wash day, and dyeing homespun material for
The early colonists likewise depended upon iron pots and kettles. Those
made of copper or brass were brought from Europe and highly prized
but costly and less durable. In the swamps near Lynn, Massachusetts,
somebody discovered chunks of pure bog iron deposited by bacterial
action and other natural processes in the water. In 1642, Joseph Jenks
established an iron works, using charcoal to smelt those deposits, and
his first casting was a big iron pot.
In those days a "pot" had bulging sides and a cover. A "kettle" had
straight sides but no cover. Both had legs to raise them above the
embers of fireplaces and, later, bails by which they were hung from a
lug pole or on a crane. Cooking pots were used daily, especially for
boiling several kinds of vegetables together, and were staple articles of
trade with the Indians. Iron kettles, with from 10 to 40 gallons capacity,
had several important uses.
Every housewife, each autumn, made a supply of candles. The wicks
were made of loosely spun hemp, or cotton, or the silky down of
milkweed. Candle rods, each with a row of wicks, were dipped in huge
kettles half-filled with boiling water and melted tallow. That was an all-
day back-breaking job. The same kettles were used to make apple
butter. The apples, peeled and cored, and cider -- heavily spiced -- were
cooked and constantly stirred until the mixture became thick and
reddish brown. Such kettles were used annually to make maple syrup
and sugar before shallow pans proved to be better. The sap was boiled
for three days and nights, closely watched, occasionally stirred until it
was syrup and ready for "sugaring off. .
Some of us can remember when soft soap was made on farms as it was
in pioneer and colonial times. Grandma saved all of the grease left from
cooking and butchering. All of the ashes from the woodburning stoves
and fireplaces were placed in a big hopper with a tub under it.
Rainwater, and water poured on the ashes, trickled through them and
leached out lye which accumulated in the tub. When the lye was strong
enough to float a fresh egg, it was boiled with the old grease in a big
kettle. The result was a soft brownish strong soap that quickly removed
all dirt and grease but was easy on clothes and had a clean odor.
At butchering time all of the neighbors helped and we borrowed some
of their big kettles to boil water for scalding the hogs so that the hair
could be scraped from their carcasses. Later those kettles were used for
rendering the lard. Crisp cracklings, skimmed from the top, were
sometimes ground and used in gravy, or mixed with meal and baked
into a rich bread.
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Update: June 2012