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In North Carolina the search for iron led to the discovery of three substantial iron deposits. Along with ore found in present-day Lincoln and Avery counties, a major iron ore deposit was found near the Deep River in present-day Chatham County. In 1768, John Willcox established an iron works, a saw mill, and a mercantile business in Gulf. As he developed the iron works, he also built a large furnace on Tick Creek, three miles south of Siler City. The works provided valuable munitions to the Whigs during the Revolutionary War.
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Willcox was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Cross Creek, later renamed Fayetteville, in the 1760s. He established the iron works in partnership with Herman Husband and William Thompson. The works consisted of a small bloomery and forge, and produced small munitions in the early 1770s.
In November 1775, Willcox purchased fifteen acres from Balaam Thompson, the son of his former partner William Thompson, on the Tick Creek near Ore Hill. Upon the land, near the mouth of Ephraim’s Creek, he built a furnace for the production of one-ton cannons. Willcox developed the furnace in response to requests by the Provincial Congress in 1775 for the creation of iron forges for weaponry. The furnace opened in late autumn of 1776 under the control of Willcox and his nephew and partner William England.
On behalf of the state, Philip Alston and Robert Rowan bought the works in 1777, but the site was under government control for only six months. Due to a lack of skilled labor and necessary resources, the furnaces at Tick Creek did not provide the munitions hoped for, proving expensive and ineffective.
Although the bloomery on Deep River continued to function, the furnace was unsuccessful. In the late summer of 1777, control of the works was returned to Willcox, who continued to produce small munitions for the Whigs through the war years. The furnaces on Tick Creek were badly damaged in 1780 and never repaired.
George W. Willcox, John Willcox, 1728-1793 (1988)
Lester J. Cappon, “Iron Making: A Forgotten Industry of North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (Oct. 1932): 331-348
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
George W. Willcox, A History of the House in the Horseshoe (1999)
Walter Clark, ed., State Records of North Carolina, X, XI (1895)