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John Fulenwider, iron manufacturer and Revolutionary War soldier, was born in Switzerland in 1756. His parents, Jacob and Ester, immigrated to America in the 1760s, settling in Rowan County. During the American Revolution, Fulenwider, a Whig, served in the Rowan County militia at Ramsour’s Mill and may have participated at King’s Mountain.
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After the Revolution, Fulenwider moved to Lincoln County and began an iron manufactory. The region had all the necessary resources: a rich and substantial iron ore deposit, hardwood trees for charcoal, limestone to extract impurities, crystalline rock for the furnaces, and falling water for powering bellows and forge hammers.
Fulenwider was one of a number of ironworkers drawn to the area after the 1788 passage of “An Act to Encourage the Building of Iron Works in this State” by the General Assembly. The act provided a ten-year tax exemption and a grant of 3,000 acres of land to anyone willing to develop a functioning ironworks. The most important forges in the state at that time were located at Troublesome Iron Works and Wilcox Ironworks. Within ten years a number of individuals, including Peter Forney and John Fulenwider, had begun production of several forges in Lincoln County.
Fulenwider’s most important foundry was located at High Shoals on property he purchased from Martin Pheiffer, owner of Red Hill, although he had several other forges located throughout Lincoln County. In 1804 he built a large forge along Maiden Creek in present Gaston County. His works produced nails, farm implements, bar iron, and wagon wheels. Fulenwider developed one of the earliest methods of making pig iron with the charcoal process. During the War of 1812, his High Shoals ironworks produced cannon balls for use by the American army.
One of the most prosperous men in the area, Fulenwider died in 1826, leaving a great deal of capital and 20,000 acres of land to be divided among his heirs. He left a wife, Elisabeth Ellis, aunt of Governor John W. Ellis, and eight children. Fulenwider is buried at High Shoals cemetery. The ironworks he developed remained in operation until 1875.
Lester J. Cappon, “Iron-Making: A Forgotten Industry in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (October 1932): 331-365
Robert B. Gordon, American Iron, 1607-1900 (1996)
William S. Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)—essay by Douglas Wait and Joshua McKagan
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II, 247—sketch by Emmet R. White
Charlotte Observer, July 22, 2000