Pioneer Fireplaces & Cast Iron Cooking
During the 1800s

A Program Presented to 
The Covington Historical Society
June 27, 2019



  • Northeastern Industrialization 1800 – 1850; improved fireplace & hearth cooking tools, cookbooks

  • War of 1812; Creek Indian (Redstick) War 1813 - 1814; Alabama became a state 1819; southern pioneers learned many meal options from natives - including corn, corn bread, grits, squash, melons & game

  • Wooden friction matches (Lucifers) were developed in 1829

  • Indian Removal 1830 – 1839; survived on fish, game, roots & berries on the Trail of Tears

  • Mormon Trail 1846 – 1868; all families required to pack a Dutch Oven for the journey out west

  • Civil War 1861 – 1865; Union troops required to carry 4 days rations in their haversacks (hardtack or wheat bread & coffee), confederate ate hoecakes (corn bread); cooked as a squad

  • Texas to Kansas Cattle Drives 1856 – 1896; Charles (Chuck) Goodnight recruited cowboys by offering good-tasting meals cooked by a good (male) cook using Dutch ovens carried in a Chuck Wagon

  • Wood cook stoves were available since 1740 but most families cooked in large indoor and outdoor fireplaces until 1900.

Division of Labor

  • Men: Processed fire wood, caught fish, killed game, cared for livestock, worked in factories (north), worked in fields (south)

  • Carried snack food in their haver (oat) sacks

  • Felling, de-limbing, bucking, splitting large tree rounds to make firewood, splitting firewood to make stove wood, splitting stove wood to make kindling

  • Seasoned hardwood (oak, hickory, beech, pecan, cherry, walnut)

  • Axes: best shape, head weight & handle length

  • Safety, preventing axe damage

  • Splitting methods

  • Women: grew vegetable/herb garden, managed chickens & eggs, preserved food, made fires & cooked food, washed dishes, cleaned house, washed clothes, mended clothes & carred for children.

  • Wore large dresses, petticoats & aprons

  • Typically cooked one big mid-afternoon meal and everyone ate left-overs the rest of the day

  • Start fire one hour before baking, hang pots of water over fire, shovel hot coals under and on top of skillets & ovens

Pioneer Fireplaces

  • Large fireplace with stone hearth, andirons (log dogs), pot cranes, pot hangers & trivets

  • Fire management tools: shovel, long tongs, poker & bellows 

  • Several cast iron cooking vessels with spider legs, bailed handles & flat lids

  • Hot pads, aprons, leather gloves, wooden utensils & lid lifter

  • Hot water used for cooking, cleaning, safety & humidifying

Spiders, Skillets & Griddles

  • Bottom gate mark: thick or thin; sprue mark before 1800

  • Size: inside diameter (10-inch) or diameter of smoke ring No. 7

  • Legs: angular or round, long or short

  • Handles: attached at rim or half-way down, rat tail. plain, or fancy, pointed rounded or teardrop end, round elongated or teardrop hole

  • Foot rim (smoke or heat ring): to elevate bottom above gate mark so that pan would sit flat

  • Lips: one or two, large or small, curved or angular

  • Lids: flat but most have not survived

  • Smooth cook surface, thin walls & light weight

  • Pre-heat, oil & cook with low heat

 Bake, Camp, & Dutch Ovens

  • Bottom gate mark: thick or thin

  • Size: No. 8 or 4 1/2 -quart

  • Legs: angular or round

  • Bail handle: removable hinge, permanent

  • Lids: flat with lip (most have not survived) or domed

  • Ears: angular, flat, or round

  • Baking temperature; coals under & top

  • Never add cold water

Other Cast Iron Pieces

  • Bean pots, chicken fryers, muffin pans, corn stick pans, waffle irons, kettles


  • Render bacon

  • Sauté onions & peppers, add 1 cup hot water & seasonings, add vegetables (potatoes, corn, beans, or greens)

One-pot Stews

  • Boil, grill, or sear meat: beef, chicken, pork, rabbit, squirrel, venison or fish

  • Add 4 cups hot water, add vegetables (carrots, onions, potatoes, peppers, corn, celery & lima beans), add seasonings (salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, garlic, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, cilantro & bullion) & thicken with rice or flour


  • Corn bread: egg, milk, sour cream, butter, corn meal, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, corn, jalapeños & onion

  • Hardtack, bannock, johnny cakes (hoecake), sour dough (starter), dumplings, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, hot cross buns & loaf bread


  • Cobblers, puddings, baked apples, cakes, gingerbread, muffins, brownies

Cast Iron Care

  • Remove baked-on (sticky) food: up-side down in oven 500 degrees, 2 hours

  • Remove rust: soak in white vinegar overnight

  • Prevent rust & stuck-on food: oil with Crisco (or season) & heat on stove eye until smoke point or bake 350 degrees for 30 minutes

  • Make aluminum foil bowl (or flour) to prevent desserts from sticking

  • Cook with low heat

  • After initial cleaning, use wooden or bamboo utensils and avoid soap

  • Clean inside: wipe with clean rag, use hot water & brush to remove stuck-on food, occasionally may have to use paint scraper

  • Clean outside soot: soap & water

Benefits of Cooking with Cast Iron

  • Economical

  • Makes food taste better

  • Experts say it is healthier

  • Pots and pans can be used with any stove or campfire

  • Easy to cook and clean

  • Lasts forever

Vintage & Modern Cast Iron (1900 - present)

  • Size marks & smoke (or heat) ring; 1890 – 1950

  • Maker’s mark & smooth bottom; 1940 – 1960

  • Maker’s mark, smooth bottom & U.S.A. 1960 – present

  • Griswold (Erie, PA) 1865 – 1957

  • Vollrath (Sheboygan, WI) 1874 – 1945

  • Wagner (Sidney, OH) 1881 – 1999

  • Atlanta Stove Works 1889 – 1957

  • Lodge (South Pittsburg, TN) 1896 – present

  • Birmingham Stove & Range 1902 – 1989

  • Martin Stove & Range (Florence, AL) 1919 - 1955

  • Asian Pieces 

  • Modern cast iron has a rougher cooking surface and is much heavier


  • If you don’t already have a cast iron skillet and Dutch Oven, buy them and start cooking pioneer recipes


  • Modern Tent Camping videos on YouTube. Topics include axes, firewood processing, cast iron cookware, camp kitchen setup, and campfire cooking.

  • Sowbelly and Sourdough: Original recipes from the trail drives and cow camps of the 1800s. By Scott Gregory, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1995.

  • The Camper’s Handbook (1908). By Thomas Hiram Holding, Simpkin Marshall Hamilton Kent & Co., London, England, 1908.

  • Camping and Woodcraft: A handbook for vacation campers & for travelers in the wilderness. By Horace Kephart, McMillan, New York, 1917.

  • Early American Cast Iron Holloware: Pots, kettles, teakettles, and skillets 1645 - 1900. By John Tyler, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Penn., 2013.

  • The Little House Cookbook: Frontier foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories. By Barbara M. Walker, Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, 1979.