Jefferson County’s gently rolling hills and sweet soil were the principal attraction for the first generation of settlers who made their homes here. Within a century, their agricultural expertise made Jefferson County among the top wheat producers in the Old Dominion. As the county grew, farm families were joined by craftsmen who could shoe a horse, throw pots to store home grown produce, and build tables and chairs. Silversmiths and whitesmiths joined blacksmiths, storekeepers set up shop in every town and village, and mills to grind grain and saw timber lined the banks of every run and creek. But according to the Spirit of Jefferson, Jefferson County had never had a foundry. That changed in 1850.
George Franklin Smith Zimmerman was born in Frederick County, Maryland. His father John Zimmerman was a miller and as a youth George worked alongside his father grinding grain near Creagerstown in northern Frederick County. While learning the milling trade, Zimmerman became adept at both the operation and repair of the mill’s machinery. His skill at making mechanical repairs led him to open his own mechanical shop. In 1850, Zimmerman made the move to Charles Town, and in the July 2, 1850 issue of the Spirit of Jefferson, Editor James W. Beller announced Zimmerman’s arrival:
…it will be seen that the citizens of our town and neighborhood, are soon likely to enjoy the advantages resulting from an establishment of the kind and character that has long been needed, and always a matter of surprise, that it was not sooner established—Mr. G. F. S. Zimmerman, an ingenious and enterprising citizen of Frederick County, Md., has purchased a lot in the Eastern end of the town near the Depot, and has already one building erected, and others contracted for, where he designs conducting in a manner sufficiently extensive to supply all demands, the manufacture of Threshing Machines, Fodder Cutters, Corn Crushers and Shellers, Wheat Screens, &c. An Iron Foundry is now in course of erection, and castings of every description will be made and turned as desired.
The lot Zimmerman purchased was strategically located along the Winchester & Potomac Rail Road near the intersection of North and East (today Church) Street. It is unknown whether the 24-year-old machinist was asked by city and county leaders to bring his skills to Charles Town, or if Zimmerman simply decided to enhance his fortune by setting up shop where he had no competitors.
Zimmerman was aware that the business of Jefferson County was agriculture. In his first Spirit of Jefferson advertisement, he made it clear that his new company, called the Jefferson Machine Factory, was “manufacturing every variety of machinery suitable for the farmer.” He also noted that “machines of all kinds will be repaired at the shortest notice.” In addition, for the farmer interested in trimming expenses and increasing yield by shifting away from hand labor to machines, farmers were told that he would “keep constantly on hand Pitt’s superior four and six-horse Threshing Machines” as well as “Fodder Cutters; Hay and Straw Cutters; Corn Crushers and Shellers; all these will be of the latest and most approved signs.”
In addition to farm machine sales and repairs, Zimmerman advertised that he would soon have his Iron Foundry in operation where “Castings of all kinds will be made” by the “most experienced workmen in the Country.” Two of the men that Zimmerman brought to Charles Town to assist him in the foundry were Adams County, Pennsylvania native William Francis Weirick and John Cyrus Weller, like Zimmerman, also born in Frederick County, Maryland.
Zimmerman and his new bride Mary made their home in Charles Town and two of their children were born here. Once the foundry was up and running, the name of the shop was changed from the “JEFFERSON MACHINE SHOP” to the “JEFFERSON MACHINE SHOP & IRON AND BRASS FOUNDRY – Old Things Done Away and All Things Became New.” The shop specialized in “every kind of implement used by the farmer to facilitate and cheapen his operations.” Not satisfied to sell someone else’s machine, Zimmerman put his mechanical skill to work, and in 1852 the Zimmerman Premium Thresher and Cleaner was ready for the wheat fields.
For centuries grains were planted and harvested by hand. Wheat was cut using a grain cradle and then gathered into bundles which were stacked in shocks to dry. When ready, the bundles were threshed, the process of separating the wheat from the straw. The final step was to winnow the wheat which separated the wheat from the chaff or husk. The wheat was then ready to be ground into flour. On a good day, an average field hand could thresh from seven to ten bushels of wheat. So, at the dawn of the Industrial Age inventors focused their attention on building machines to harvest grain, and in 1788 Andrew Meikle, a Scottish miller, was the first to patent a threshing machine. The race was on, and subsequent modifications to the threshing machine improved its efficiency. Fast forward to Baltimore, Maryland in the fall of 1852, and G. F. S. Zimmerman “of Jefferson County, Virginia” exhibited a “Thresher and Cleaner” at Maryland State Agricultural Fair. 1 - His machine “combined operations for threshing, separating, cleaning twice, screening and bagging all kinds of small grain at one and the same time.” Fair judges were so impressed with Zimmerman’s thresher that he was awarded the first premium, and they were complimentary of his machine for “the admirable execution of its work and the simplicity of its construction.” It was reported that with “twelve horses and six men” Zimmerman’s thresher could “prepare for the mill 800 to 1,000 bushels in a day.” 2 - Fair officials advised farmers that they could get the Zimmerman thresher at his Charles Town shop or at agricultural supply dealers in Baltimore and Richmond.
Apparently not satisfied with his success in Charles Town, Zimmerman gave in to wanderlust. After Thanksgiving in 1855, he and his family left Jefferson County behind and ended up along the Missouri River at St. Joseph, Missouri. He picked up in St. Joseph where he left off in Charles Town and soon had a brass and iron foundry in operation. Still the inventor, in November 1857 Zimmerman was awarded Patent No. 18,657 for an improvement in hemp-brakes. After the Civil War he left Missouri and returned home to Frederick County, Maryland where he died in 1896.
Before departing Charles Town, Zimmerman had sold his machine shop and foundry to William Rowe. Rowe was strictly a mechanic, and he advertised that he would “confine my business to repairing and making Machines.” The cost of purchasing Zimmerman’s property and outfitting the shop apparently taxed Rowe’s capital because he advised the public that his work was done on a cash basis “unless there is a previous contract.” To attract new customers, Rowe assured them that his work would be done “at prices a little more favorable than heretofore charged at this shop.” As he would only use the machine shop, Rowe offered for rent Zimmerman’s sawmill, plaster mill, and foundry to generate additional revenue.
The Jefferson Machine Shop was still operating when the Civil War broke out. Armies moved on their stomachs, but they did not need threshing machines. Instead they had other machines which were operated by inexperienced privates which necessitated constant maintenance and repair. Both armies had their own mechanics, but when passing through a town or village, shops like the Jefferson Machine Shop became a popular place to stop for a quick repair. The mechanics always appreciated the business, but it came with the potential for attendant problems. If a repair was made to the caisson of a soldier wearing a blue uniform, a soldier wearing a gray or butternut uniform might take exception to the mechanic’s service. And vice versa.
The Spirit of Jefferson went dark in April 1861 and did not resume publication until November 1865. In its Saturday, November 14th issue, Editor and Proprietor Benjamin Franklin Beall made this report:
The extensive Foundry erected some years since at the east end of town by Mr. Zimmerman, having been razed to the ground during the war, and not a vestige of its extensive shops now left…
It is unknown if Zimmerman’s shop was “razed to the ground” by soldiers wearing blue or soldiers wearing gray, but the result was the same. William Rowe was a mechanic, and like most men and women, farmers, shopkeepers, physicians, and attorneys, he had to go to work every day just to stay financially afloat. He could not afford to take one day off, much less close his shop every time the army came through town. That would be financial suicide. The destruction of William Rowe’s Jefferson Machine Shop by soldiers blue or gray, so that there was “not a vestige of its extensive shops now left,” was just one example of the heavy price paid by many civilians who found themselves in the middle of a Civil War.
Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson.