There are a couple of Manhattan-sized secrets nestled in rural Marion County, Tennessee.
About 25 miles west of Chattanooga and right inside the Central time zone, this county of fewer than 30,000 residents has a Texas-sized high school football history. The state's longest continuous rivalry between Marion County and South Pittsburg high schools has produced more than a dozen state championships teams through the years.
And nestled right there in the industrial park in South Pittsburg is a company that has woven a rich history that started during the South's reconstruction after the Civil War.
How long has U.S. Stove Company been producing high quality stoves, heating apparatuses and iron products? When the Chattanooga Times Free Press — which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year — opened its doors in late 1869, the founders of U.S. Stove were already in operation.
The finished product
U.S. Stove has nearly 150 employees who work diligently offering stove and heating products and parts to the public. The advantage of experience is something the company treasures.
The U.S. Stove company website touts the company's history with the tag line: "Expertise through longevity: With 150 years of experience in keeping America warm, let us guide you to the proper heating solution for your family."
"We have focused our attention on tradition, quality and affordability," U.S. Stove Vice President of Business Intelligence Paul Williams says. "We make good products that people can trust and afford. When they have questions or problems, they know we're here. We have also made sure to diversify our lineup so to stay relevant within the marketplace. What we've seen, when energy prices are high, people will lean on wood burning appliances to supplement their heating needs. When gas prices are low, we see strong gas sales."
That balance and diversity has allowed U.S. Stove to endure hard times and thrive during the good ones.
Moving forward, like most companies that deal in the heating or the fuel-based world, dealing with cleaner models and more regulations is at the forefront.
"A huge immediate hurdle are the regulations that are being forced on our industry by the EPA," Williams says. "While we support the cleaner regulations, it is the forced timing that makes it very difficult."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, older uncertified stoves release 15 to 30 grams of smoke per hour. The new EPA-certified stoves must produce no more than 4.5 grams per hour. The new limit was set in 1988 and mandated by 1992. By May 15, 2020, the EPA will lower that standard by more than half to 2.0 grams of smoke per hour.
Williams is confident in U.S. Stove's ability to meet that standard because of the company's leadership and committed employees, he said. But that overhaul will not come without some heartaches — for manufacturers and customers alike.
"These new requirements will force many manufacturers out of business and most of the products on the market now to be removed," Williams says. "The result, consumers will see higher prices with fewer alternatives. With the consolidation of the market, we have the challenge of filling the capacity with a modern retail and e-commerce solution."
The long and winding road
It's hard to imagine the founders of the parent company of U.S. Stove worrying about something like e-commerce considering the interesting road the company has traveled.
John S. Perry began building wood stoves in 1843 in Albany, New York, long before truck transport, environmental regulations and the Internet.
But his initial venture proved short-lived when his funds ran out and the company went bust in 1860. But the spirit that lives through the factory in South Pittsburg to this day was evident even then as Perry borrowed $13,000 from his wife and reopened in 1862. That wife died and Perry reorganized with his new wife and family. His second wife died in 1869, and the company's restructuring then is what U.S. Stove considers their founding.
At the time, the company sold tea kettles for 70 cents and some of the more fancy iron cooking stoves went for about $13.
And the heat-generating casts sold like hot cakes, as the company was producing more than 90,000 stoves annually and by the 1880s had nearly 1,200 employees, many of whom were prisoners in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. That working arrangement was made illegal in 1886, which in some ways pointed the company south.
With the end of the Civil War, the rebuilding of the South and the labor contract loss, a wealthy businessman, John Hamilton Inman, worked with an Albany Stove company to move to South Pittsburg. Inman was a powerful coal land owner in the Sequatchie Valley and investor in the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co.
In June of 1886 a "Mammoth Stove Foundry" was built and the hiring of 500 men and boys began. "Experienced and sober" applicants could make 40 cents an hour. Others were paid $2 per day or less.
In 1888, a boiler explosion killed six men. The boiler landed almost two football fields away and destroyed a house.
In 1927, an historic union fight occurred at the business on Christmas night. Following the gunshots, several lay dead and the stove company could not rebound. It closed until S.L. Rogers reorganized and incorporated U.S. Stove Corporation in 1930.
The Rogers family still owns and operates the company today with Richard Rogers sitting as the chairman of the board and his nephew August Jones serving as the company president.
The festival for the rest of us
Other than high school football, of course, arguably the biggest event in South Pittsburg is the annual cornbread festival, and U.S. Stove is right there every year as a sponsor and participant.
"Celebrating 150 years, we are looking forward more than ever to the annual festivities with our local Marion County community." Jones says.
U.S. Stove will be part of the ever-popular Scavenger Hunt as well as introducing a new line of Pellet Grills and hosting several other events and activities.
"The entire city of South Pittsburg volunteers and supports this National event. We provide the space for the weeklong carnival," Williams says. "It's a great event."
For those who have been, it's hard to disagree. For those who have not, the Cornbread Festival is the perfect outreach for U.S. Stove. This company is about community.
"We are a family-owned business made up of a few hundred families," Williams says. "I think that is a lost attribute. We've seen generations come through our doors and work with us to produce the kind of product they would want their family to have. To have employees be with you over 50 years says a lot. That longevity gets you the tradition and quality we're looking for."
It also is the right recipe to be in business for 150 years and counting.