Forests to Charcoal  

One ingredient for iron that was plentiful in Southern Ohio was forests from which charcoal was made. The primeval forests were still available. The charcoal making process began with a collier and the forest. Trees were cut down, cut into lengths and split. This was all done by swinging a sharp axe. Sometimes the collier would do all this and sometimes different people would do the different tasks. It was a good collier who could cut and `rack' five cords of wood a day! Three cords a day was considered a good days work.

The wood had to be split into slightly smaller pieces. It was then ready for stacking, `racking', into a mound. The mound was called a meiler.

The meiler was started with a square stack of crib wood for a chimney in the center, This crib wood would go as high as the meiler would be. The crib wood stack was hollow in the center of about one foot square. The main wood would then be `racked' on end up to the crib wood. More and more pieces of wood would be racked against one another in an outward direction and wood would also be racked on top of the other wood until the wood reached the top of the crib wood in the center. The meiler by now began to look like a small hill and might have a diameter of 50 feet or more! The meiler would contain about 40 cords of wood and would make about 200 bushels of charcoal and would stand about 12 feet high.

Once the wood was stacked into the meiler it was covered with green leaves and then a covering of several inches of earth. It was necessary for this dirt to be tamped down so there would be no air holes that were not wanted. The crib hole in the center was filled with smaller pieces of wood and chips that was set on fire to start the burn. Once the burn was begun, the crib hole was covered with small pieces of wood known as lap wood and then leaves, dirt and sealed so air could not get into the meiler. The collier would make small air hole to control the burn. If too much air did get in, the wood would flame up and burn to where there would be no charcoal It took about twenty days to do a burn and it had to be watched night and day to make certain no pieces would fall down and cause a hole in the meiler. Once a hole was located, it was stopped with more soil after the flames were put out with water. For this and other reasons the meiler was always made near a good source of water.

Once the burn was complete and the charcoal cooled, the charcoal was pulled from the meiler a small group at a time and then doused good with water to put out any fire in it. The rest of the meiler was kept sealed until all the charcoal had been removed and doused with water. The charcoal was loaded onto tall bed wagons pulled by oxen. One wagon load of charcoal could weigh as much as two tons. Sometimes the collier would get in a hurry for the charcoal and put the hot charcoal in his wagon only to have the charcoal flare up and burn the wagon and the charcoal.

If this charcoal were being made by the company employees, it would go directly to the furnace stockyard. If it were made by an individual it would be hauled to the furnace he chose. At the furnace it was weighed and he was paid the going rate in script. Script was a piece of paper saying that you had so much money the company owed you and you could buy anything you wanted in that company store. The script was no good in other stores. This was changed in later years from a court ruling.

Each furnace took different amounts of charcoal per year depending on its output. It wasn't too long before all of the virgin forests were gone. Second and third growth timber made better charcoal and hardwoods were the best.

A model of a meiler cut in two showing its interior construction.

Model of meiler showing outward construction.

Partially finished meiler. Men in front with hay stopped long enough to put on their "Sunday go to meeting" clothes for the picture.

Wood being readied for a meiler. Small wood in front is crib wood.

Charcoal making in early 1800.

Colier putting lapwood over meiler before placing layer of leaves and then earth.

Placing leaves over the meiler before placing 6-8" of earth over that.

Placing leaves and then earth over the meiler.

Drawing charcoal from a meiler.

Copyright 2006 by Amos Hawkins