I reached out recently to Joe Mickey of State Road, retired state fisheries biologist, for photos of old moonshine still sites in Stone Mountain State Park for an article.
In addition to extensive knowledge of life in area streams from his career and of trail matters due to volunteering with the Elkin Valley Trails Association, Joe probably knows where to find more old liquor still sites in Stone Mountain State Park than anyone around.
He can look at the remains of an old still and tell the type and roughly the time it operated. My request prompted Joe to share bonus information about the 55-gallon steel drums that were a primary component of many Wilkes County liquor stills.
They’re the most prominent remains of most old still sites in this county, but what I now know is that a daring woman journalist named Nellie Bly (her real name was Elizabeth J. Cochran Seaman) is credited with developing and producing steel oil drums.
Bly was already famous from her work at the New York World when she married industrialist Robert Seaman, owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., in the 1890s. Seaman died in 1904, leaving his widow to run the company.
Iron Clad produced milk cans, riveted boilers, tanks and “The Most Durable Enameled Kitchen Ware Made” at the time, according to an article from the American Oil & Gas Historical Society website.
During visit to Europe the same year her husband died, Nellie Bly saw glycerin containers made of steel and “determined to make steel containers for the American trade.” She patented her own “metal barrel” one year later.
She wrote about her efforts to make a sturdy and dependable steel barrel. “My first experiment leaked and the second was defective because the solder gave way, and then I brazed them with the result that the liquid inside was ruined by the brazing metal,” she said. “I finally worked out the steel package to perfection, patented the design, put it on the market and taught the American public to use the steel barrel.”
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society article said the real credit should go to Nellie Bly’s employee, Henry Wehrhahn of Brooklyn, New York, who in December 1905 received two patents that would lead to the modern 55-gallon steel barrel.
“My invention has for its object to provide a metal barrel which shall be simple and strong in construction and effective and durable in operation,” Wehrhahn explained in his patent, No. 808,327, a flanged metal barrel. The familiar encircling hoops allowed for guided rolling of the barrel for better control.
Wehrhahn became superintendent of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. in 1902. He assigned his inventions to his employer, Bly, who also patented a milk can and stacking garbage can.
“I am the only manufacturer in the country who can produce a certain type of steel barrel for which there is an immense demand at present, for the transportation of oil, gasoline, and other liquids,” she proclaimed.
In America’s oilfields, traditional wooden barrels had always been problematic for shipping oil. Despite the introduction of pipelines and railroad tank cars, there remained the need for manageable-sized, durable, leak-proof barrels. Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. answered that need.
The company’s steel barrels ultimately became the 55-gallon steel drums of today.
At its peak, Iron Clad employed 1,500 people and could produce 1,000 steel barrels daily, but then charges of fraud led to bankruptcy proceedings starting in 1911. Nellie Bly was in Austria looking for financial backers when World War I began. Wehrhahn had moved on to a company in Wisconsin.
Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. eventually closed due to debt, and Bly returned to newspaper reporting, covering women’s suffrage events and Europe’s Eastern Front during the war. She died of pneumonia in 1922 — two years after the 19th Amendment secured her the right to vote.