Lodge Cast Iron, where the famous pans are made is opening a museum, here's a first look

Todd A. Price
The American South

Each year, more than 100,000 people stop by the egg-yolk yellow Lodge Cast Iron Factory Store at the company's South Pittsburg, Tennessee, headquarters. Lodge Cast Iron hopes to double that number of visitors with the opening of a new museum.

The 10,000 square-foot museum is a high-tech playground for fans of Lodge's low-tech cast-iron pots and pans. The Lodge Museum of Cast Iron opens to the public on Saturday, but earlier this week the company rolled out a brand-appropriate yellow carpet and opened the doors for a preview.

How molten iron becomes a pan

Most visitors ask to see the factory where Lodge makes its cookware. The sprawling Lodge complex, covered in murals celebrating cast iron and plenty of the company's signature yellow, is located a block off the main street of quiet South Pittsburg, about 30 minutes from Chattanooga. The main foundry is a few yards from the factory store and new museum.

At the new Lodge Museum of Cast Iron, learn how a cast-iron pan is made through an interactive exhibit.

Inside the foundry, three furnaces each hold 10 metric tons of 2,800 degree molten metal, a mix of pig iron, steel and "returns," pots and pans that did not pass Lodge's quality standards. Almost 10% of the cookware made by Lodge is deemed substandard and melted down.

Molds are formed with "green sand," named not for its color, which is coal black, but because of its moisture. A machine presses the sand into the shape of a pot, pan, griddle or biscuit tin, like a kid making sand cakes at the beach. Every hour, the machine can turn out 500 molds, which then travel down a line to be filled with liquid iron. The iron "freezes" hard in less than a minute.

The pots and pans are then shaken and blasted with bits of metal to clean off the sand, which is recycled to make new molds.

Lodge credits pre-seasoning, which it perfected in 2002, with the rapid growth of its business. Sales took off once cast-iron pans could be sold black and seasoned, which lets home cooks use them immediately.

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The pre-seasoning process seems simple enough. The pans, hanging from hooks, pass through a machine that looks like a carwash, where they are sprayed with soy oil. They emerge dripping with oil and then go into a 650 degree oven, which seals the surface.

The Lodge foundry is loud and dirty, so visitors are not allowed. Currently the doors are open only one day a year, during the National Cornbread Festival in the spring, and that's on a weekend when the machines are not running.

At the new Lodge Museum of Cast Iron, learn how a cast-iron pan is made through an interactive exhibit.

At the new museum, Lodge recreates the factory experience, minus the heat and dust, with video installations and interactive exhibits. You can operate a giant electromagnet to gather the metal that goes into a furnace. Or you can stand mesmerized before a video of pans tumbling like laundry in a dryer as they shake off the sand from the mold.

Until Lodge sorts out how to safely ferry visitors through the foundry, the museum offers the best way to see how a cast-iron pan is made.

A legacy in cast iron

Joseph Lodge, who founded the company, traveled widely to find his fortune, spending time in Latin America before in 1877 settling in Tennessee. In 1896, he founded Blacklock Foundry, the start of Lodge Cast Iron.

The second section of the museum traces the company's history and the five generations of the Lodge family who have overseen its operation.

At the start, just inside a doorway shaped like a frying pan, stands a mannequin of Lodge. He welcomes visitors into a room where the wallpaper, chandelier and stained-glass windows mimic his house, where his great-granddaughter lives today.

Joseph Lodge founded the Lodge Cast Iron company in the late 19th century. The new Lodge Museum of Cast Iron is located in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and tells the history of the popular brand.

The history section of the museum tells of the company's struggles, like when the original foundry burned in 1910 or how during the Great Depression it made iron dogs, cats and gnomes when cookware sales declined.

Automation arrived with the third generation of the Lodge family. Marketing, and the familiar logo of a cast-iron pan holding a fried egg, came with the fourth generation. That was the period when Lodge went from being a company to a brand.

Serious cast iron collectors will be drawn to a bank vault that holds antique cast-iron pots and pans.

Cast iron in the culture

In case anyone doubts that cast iron is cool, the "culture" section of the museum includes a reel of clips with cast iron appearing in movies, TV shows and even video games. Most of the time, the pans are used to whack someone on the head. (Maybe there was a reason the TSA almost didn't let me take my new pan through security on the way home.)

In another room, touch a cast-iron pan or pot and a well-known cook appears on a screen to give you a quick lesson, like how to properly sear a steak in cast iron. On the back wall of the museum is a celebration of Southern cooking, which is so often done in cast iron. The Southern cooking exhibit was curated by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Using a touch screen, visitors can even create a custom cookbook with recipes from Appalachia, Cajun Country and the soul food tradition.

The new Lodge Museum of Cast Iron is located in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and includes an exhibit on Southern cuisine curated by the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Lodge, in the final exhibit, dares to tackle the great controversies of cast iron, like can you cook with acid (yes) or use it on a glass stovetop (yes, but be careful).

On the most heated question, can you use soap to wash cast iron, the museum dodges. Visitors can take a poker chip and drop it into one of two plexiglass boxes to vote for using soap or not. (A Lodge representative said in reality soap is fine. The prohibition came about when soap had lye, which could strip the finish from cast-iron cookware.)

The Lodge Museum of Cast Iron is located at 220 East Third St. in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. The museum opens daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $10. For more information, visit