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Preservation efforts continue for Laurel Hill iron furnace

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 9:04 p.m.
Erik Kunkle of High Turr Farms Landscaping uses a high lift to clear debris from the historic iron furnace.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Erik Kunkle of High Turr Farms Landscaping uses a high lift to clear debris from the historic iron furnace.
Erik Kunkle of High Turr Farms Landscaping clears debris from the historic iron furnace.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Erik Kunkle of High Turr Farms Landscaping clears debris from the historic iron furnace.

Erik Kunkle of High Turr Farms Landscaping was mowing around the Laurel Hill iron furnace for the Ligonier Valley Historical Society six years ago when he was asked by Tina Yandrick, society director of operations, if he was interested in helping to preserve the furnace. Kunkle had worked on a few barn preservations in the area and was interested in starting a new project.

“It has since become a side passion project to restore the furnace,” said Kunkle. “We are trying to preserve as best as we can. It has been a long road.”

Kunkle said he started his landscaping business 10 years ago and became interested in preservation work after he and his wife, Loretta, built a post-and -beam home at their New Florence farm, where they raise beef cattle and goats.

“Erik enjoys history and loves working outdoors, which he is able to do in his business. He and his wife have cared for the furnace property for numerous years. It has become their personal crusade to make sure that the iron furnace is maintained correctly so that it will survive for many years to come,” said Yandrick.

The first phase of the project was completed in 2008. At that time, Kunkle cleaned the top and removed the plant growth to prevent rocks from moving out of place.

Water gets in between the rocks. It freezes and thaws and pushes the rocks apart. With no upkeep, it will decay and fall apart.

“At that time, we did not have the funds to cap the furnace. It has taken some time to secure the funds for phase two,” said Yandrick.

Funding was secured through a grant from the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor.

Kunkle and his crew are presently putting a new top on the furnace.

When he recently uncovered the stones on top he realized the last people up there were the workers who built the furnace.

“Now 100-plus years later, I get to uncover it and be the first to see it since the workers were there firing that furnace,” said Kunkle.

He said the top of the furnace looks the same as the sides, a heavy mass of stone.

They will fill in cracks with concrete and seal the top.

“We are basically putting a concrete roof on top of it,” said Kunkle. “We will put a polymer sealant, a waterproofing agent, on top to prevent water infiltration to slow the freezing and thawing process.”

Yandrick said the furnace is a significant piece of history that residents are fortunate to have in the area.

“It is one of the best preserved of Pennsylvania's old iron blast furnaces,” said Yandrick. “The furnace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ligonier Valley Historical Society takes great pride in maintaining this historic site in keeping with the mission to preserve this property for the education and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Yandrick said the long- range plan for the property is to develop an educational and tourism program to market the site as an industrial wayside for education and visitor tours promoting the history of the iron furnace.

At one time, there were nine iron furnaces in Ligonier Valley. This area had a generous supply of the resources needed to make iron: deposits of iron ore, limestone, oak forests to supply wood for charcoal and water power.

“I like living with modern technology but I like the history behind it and how we got to where we got,” said Kunkle. “Back then it was built with horses and ropes and lots of manpower.”

The major product of the Laurel Hill Iron Furnace was pig iron, which was later converted to products at other locations. But the local furnace also cast pots, pans, kettles, bells, weather vanes, stoves and horseshoes.

Kunkle said it will not be possible to make it a working furnace again. He said the interior chimney is in good shape but the furnace is deteriorated.

To go to the furnace, take state Route 711 North to New Florence. Look for the New Florence sign and turn right onto Furnace Lane. Go to the second road on the right. This road leads into Pennsylvania Game Lands 42 and crosses Baldwin Run. The furnace is on the left. The distance from New Florence is about 1 mile.

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