Horace Ware (1812-1890) built Alabama‘s first permanent ironworks and the first rolling mill, which produced iron ingots in various shapes, including slabs, bars, or finished products such as rails, beams, or plates. Ware’s Shelby County Iron Manufacturing Company, commonly known as the Shelby Iron Works, evolved from a rudimentary operation in the late 1840s into one of Alabama’s most significant industrial complexes by 1860. During the Civil War, Shelby Iron Works was a major supplier of iron to the Confederate Naval Arsenal at Selma. After the war, Ware attracted the first capitalists from outside the state to invest in Alabama’s iron industry.
] Horace Ware was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, on April 11, 1812, the only son of Jonathan and Roxana Howe Ware. His father worked in iron mills in Massachusetts and New York until Horace was about 13 years old. Jonathan Ware then moved his family to North Carolina to pursue the emerging iron trade in that state. In about 1830, he moved his family again, this time settling on Shoal Creek in Bibb County, Alabama, where they lived among veterans of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s campaigns of the War of 1812. In 1835 Jonathan Ware, in partnership with Edward Mahan, built a forge on Shoal Creek that used water to power the bellows. At the age of 16, Horace Ware became his father’s partner in the construction and operation of several other crude forges in Bibb and Shelby Counties. By the time he was 20, Horace had acquired his father’s share of the business and had become a leader in the state’s early iron industry. In 1840, Ware married Martha A. Woodruff, who was from an influential family in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The couple had seven children, including son John E. Ware, who became treasurer and secretary of the Clifton Iron Company near Anniston and editor of Our Mountain Home in Talladega. Martha Ware died in 1862, and Horace Ware married Mary Roper Harris of Columbiana the following year. The couple had no children.
In the early 1840s Ware purchased iron-ore beds and adjacent timberlands in Shelby County. His lack of sufficient capital caused a delay in building a furnace, and it was not until John M. McClanahan, a Shelby County planter, joined Ware as a financial partner that construction of a third blast furnace began. By 1849, their Shelby furnace was operational. Enslaved laborers mined the ore with pick and shovel a few hundred yards from the furnace. Charcoal manufactured from trees in the vicinity served as fuel for the furnace, which was powered by a modified steamboat engine rather than water. During the first years of production, much of the iron was sold locally to plantation blacksmiths or made into metal tableware (known as hollow ware), such as bowls, pitchers, teapots, and trays as well as various kinds of castings used for making iron pots or domestic kitchen or farm utensils. Ware’s efforts were not always profitable, as payments were often in the form of produce or merchandise. When he began hauling his products by wagon to the Coosa River and transporting it by river to Montgomery, Prattville, and Mobile, Ware was able to market to more prosperous customers, such as gin manufacturer Daniel Pratt, owner of the largest business in the state.
Shelby Iron Works Sometime before 1856 Ware bought out McLanahan’s interest and in 1858 incorporated the business to enable him to acquire more capital from private investors. His new concern, titled the Shelby County Manufacturing Company, was authorized by a charter of incorporation granted by the Alabama legislature to manufacture iron in any form and to construct transportation facilities as needed for its business. An interesting provision of the act of incorporation prohibited the sale of “spirituous liquors” within three miles of the company’s furnace. In 1858 Ware also began construction on Alabama’s first rolling mill in a further effort to increase the potential of his company. When completed in April 1860, the rolling mill was capable of producing 12 tons of marketable iron bar daily.
By 1860 Horace Ware had established one of the most significant industrial communities in the state, consisting of a blast furnace, forge, foundry, school, church, and enough homes to house up to several hundred people. Much of the work performed at this time was done by enslaved African Americans. The company’s policy was to hire, rather than purchase, slaves whenever possible, and they were fed, clothed, and housed at company expense. Ware also employed skilled whites as laborers and supervisors, but labor shortages after the outbreak of the Civil War made it necessary for him to lure workers away from other iron works by offering higher wages.
Horace Ware remained the sole proprietor of the Shelby Iron Works until March 18, 1862, when he sold most of his interest in the company for the sum of $150,000 to John W. and James W. Lapsley, Henry H. Ware (no relation), John R. Kenan, John M. McClanahan, and A.T. Jones. Ware was elected to the board of directors but played a minor role in the company during the war. A. T. Jones was elected president, and under him the company added a larger furnace, obtained a rail line connecting the company to Columbiana, and provided more iron to the Confederate Naval Arsenal in Selma than any other plant in Alabama. A portion of the armor plate for the CSS Tennessee was rolled at Shelby, and its quality was demonstrated by the fact that the Tennessee successfully endured several broadsides at short range during the Battle of Mobile Bay. The Shelby Iron Works continued to supply the Confederate arsenal until April 1865, when a detachment under Union general James H. Wilson, known as Wilson’s Raiders, destroyed all the machinery necessary for iron production.
In 1867 Ware and John W. Lapsley were able to attract northern capital to rebuild Shelby and to establish it as a nationally renowned railroad-car wheel manufacturer. In 1881, after years of tension with the new management, Ware sold his stock back to the company for $132,525, a profit of 530 percent. The Shelby Iron Works continued in production until August 1923. Its ruins are located on Highway 42 a few miles south of Columbiana, and an annual festival is held there each fall.
Before selling his interest in the Shelby furnaces, Ware purchased the inactive Salt Creek furnace in Talladega County near Anniston in December 1869. Lacking sufficient capital to put this furnace back in operation, he teamed up with Stephen S. Glidden of Ohio in November 1872 to form the Alabama Furnace Company, which in turn became the Clifton Iron Company when A. L. Tyler and Samuel Noble of Anniston purchased Glidden’s interest. Ware was not actively involved in the Clifton operation and sold his interest in 1888. About 1884 Ware invested for a short time in the Sheffield Furnace Company that provided free land to furnace investors to encourage them to use the brown ore of Franklin County. Ware quickly sold his interest to Enoch Ensley a few months after production began in late 1887. He also invested in a furnace in Jefferson, Texas, prior to his retirement to Birmingham, where he died on July 2, 1890, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
Armes, Ethel. The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. 1910. Reprint, Birmingham, Ala.: Beechwood Books, 1987.
McKenzie, Robert H. “Horace Ware: Alabama Iron Pioneer.” Alabama Review 26 (July 1973):.157-72
Wallace, Richard D. “A History of the Shelby Iron Company: 1865-1873.” Master’s thesis, University of Alabama, 1953.
Woodward, Joseph H. II. Alabama Blast Furnaces. Woodward, Ala.: Woodward Iron Company, 1940.