Retrospect: The Alabama odyssey of Willard Warner

Warner started the Tecumseh Iron Works in Cherokee County, where he produced pig iron

Famed photographer Matthew Brady took this photo of Willard Warner in the late 1860s. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Few entrepreneurs enjoyed a more varied career than Willard Warner. Born in Ohio in 1826, he worked in businesses in four American states. Warner was a merchant, gold miner, farmer, ironworker, coffin maker, soldier and statesman. Early leaders in the national Republican Party valued his counsel. Union generals trusted him with their most important assignments. Partisan newspaper editors despised him. But in the northeast Alabama community where he lived and worked for nearly two decades, Willard Warner was compared to royalty.

He hailed from Granville, Ohio. In 1849, the California gold rush pulled the restless Warner from his family. Though he did not make his millions there, Warner made enough to successfully launch himself into business once he returned to Ohio in 1852, where he operated a general store and machine works. Warner married well and walked in circles that included Salmon P. Chase and U.S. Senator John Sherman, both early adherents of the new Republican Party.

During the Civil War, Warner organized a volunteer infantry regiment of fellow Ohioans. He rose through the officer ranks quickly. By war’s end, he was a major general and a trusted member of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s inner circle. As Sherman prepared for his Atlanta campaign, he looked to Warner “for the complicated and intricate task of allowing the citizenry to depart.” 

In the early days of Reconstruction, Warner purchased a plantation along the Alabama River near Prattville. His Republican bona fides soon helped usher him into the United States Senate. In Washington, he spoke eloquently for a number of causes, including the treatment of Native Americans and women’s suffrage. Warner also ensured that Alabama land-grant renewals commenced anew, allowing a railroad building boom interrupted by the war to resume.

But he had his enemies. Chief among them was fellow Alabama Sen. George Spencer, who chafed at the elder Warner’s zeal and how he monopolized federal appointments. In those years, the members of the Alabama Legislature appointed the state’s U.S. senators. When the time came for Warner’s reappointment in 1872, a coalition of Spencer acolytes and democrats deprived him of the seat. 

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Cast out of the political realm, Warner started anew. He relocated to Cherokee County in northeast Alabama, where he purchased large tracts of timberland and built a charcoal-fired factory to produce pig iron. Other businessmen had tried and failed to harness the mineral resources of Cherokee County for iron production. Warner named his new concern Tecumseh Iron Works, an homage to his former commanding officer. He organized his company with $200,000 of capital stock from financial backers in Alabama and northern states. Though apparently not an original investor, William Tecumseh Sherman later held a financial stake in the company, which bore his name. He visited the facility himself in 1879.   

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, namesake of Tecumseh Iron Co. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Warner went about his construction work with dispatch. Within the year, a furnace reaching 60 feet high rose at the site. The first ingots of Tecumseh’s “Superior Charcoal Pig Iron” were produced in February 1874. Soon, Warner’s products were shipped as far away as Rhode Island, Minnesota and Colorado. He paid his workers well and showed concern for their safety. Tecumseh’s mill village was among the most well regarded in the state. It included a church, schools for black and white children, post office and general store. “In its beautiful and attractive location, it will compare favorably with that of any industry of its kind in the state,” wrote one visitor to Tecumseh. Another local newspaper editor called Warner “one of the greatest kings in North Alabama or Georgia.”

Not everyone viewed Warner with such admiration, however. In 1882, an editor from neighboring Rome, Georgia, called the Tecumseh president a “carpetbagger,” a derisive, politically loaded description for the northern men who came to the hobbled southern states after the war seeking quick fortunes. Warner, by then a resident of Alabama for almost two decades, took extreme umbrage at the label.

An ad for Tecumseh Iron Co. appeared in The Coosa River News in 1883.

Several Alabama newspapermen rushed to his defense. “He is not a carpetbagger in the acid sense of the term, for he has quite a capital investment in the south,” wrote one. “It would be a wonderfully great blessing if sober-plodding Alabama had a few more Willard Warners,” wrote the editor of the Eufaula Times and News. “Alabama needs a thousand.” Warner perhaps took the most pride in the words of a Cherokee County editor, who called him a man of “ability and integrity of purpose” and referred to him as “the Iron Prince.” 

This was more than vainglorious, printed praise. By the mid-1880s, Alabama ranked among the nation’s top iron-producing states. Warner could rightly claim a portion of credit for that early success. Still, he also foresaw the coming of a monumental shift of Alabama iron production toward the rich mineral fields of Jefferson County. The winds of change blew once more for Willard Warner. In 1887, after nearly 15 years at the helm, Warner stepped down as superintendent of Tecumseh Iron Works. Soon thereafter, he relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where his sons had established themselves in several businesses. Railroad man Charles Nagle assumed control of Tecumseh. Warner tried unsuccessfully to find a buyer for his Cherokee County ironworks. The facility closed in 1890. 

In Tennessee, Warner busied himself with business interests in a spinning mill, a wagon company and a savings bank. He even briefly reentered the political realm, serving one term in the Tennessee House of Representatives. His final venture was as head of the Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company. There, at around noon on November 23, 1906, while working at his desk, 80-year-old Willard Warner took his last breath. Charles Dickens himself could hardly have penned a better end for such a peripatetic, inexhaustible man.    

After Warner’s death, the old Tecumseh property changed hands twice in the early 1900s but was never put back into production. In 1912, the furnace was dismantled for scrap, by which time the center of Alabama’s iron-making empire had moved from the hills of Cherokee County to Birmingham and its environs.  

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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