In 1862 Richard Clayborne Stewart Sr. opened the Stewart Iron Fence Company in Covington, Kentucky. By 1886 the company had grown to over 150 employees, including two of R.C. Stewart sons, who decided to expand the business by opening a separate factory in Wichita, KS. Soon after, fire claimed both the foundry and the forge at the Wichita operation, forcing the Stewart boys to return to their father and the main factory in Covington where business was booming in a variety of venues. By the turn of the century Stewart Iron was considered the largest ornamental iron furniture manufacturer in the US and the largest ornamental fence company in the world, employing more than 700 workers. In 1902 they decided to incorporate the business under three separate names: the Stewart Structural and Iron Bridge Company, The Stewart Iron Fence Works, and the Stewart Jail Works.
As their reputation grew, so did the prestige of the projects they were awarded. Stewart Iron created all of the benches and site amenities for New York City’s Central Park, the light fixtures in Congress, the fencing and gates surrounding the Panama Canal, and the jail cells for such notorious prison as Alcatraz, Sing-Sing, and Leavenworth. The Stewart family also expanded its business by marrying into other prominent manufacturing families such as Sanders Monuments and Firestone Tires. As a result Stewart cornered the market on cemetery fencing across America and merged with US Motor Trucks ultimately manufacturing all of the heavy duty trucks used by the US Army during WWI. After WWI, the domestic market exploded for residential fencing, estate gates and high end interior ornamental railing projects. Considered the “golden age” for the Stewart Iron Fence Works, payroll increased to over 3,000 workers.
At this time, Stewart began selling fencing through several national distributors, other fence companies, the Chicago Merchandise Mart and in Sears & Roebuck catalogs. When the Great Depression hit, fence sales slowed and Stewart sold its interests in US Motor Trucks to concentrate on its jail division, a booming industry during the years of gangsters and prohibition. Coincidentally the company also began manufacturing the housings for Tommy Guns around this time. With the onset of WWII, Stewart helped contribute to the war effort by manufacturing tank armor and portable Bailey bridges. But US regulations regarding German-American citizens severely limited the company’s ability to land government contracts due to its predominantly German-speaking work force, a demographic mix common at the time throughout the mid-west. As a result, Stewart did not receive government subsidies for manufacturing improvements vital to the war effort that were awarded to many of its competitors. This loss of income left Stewart unable to invest in new equipment for mass production leading to a severe decline in fence sales after the war.
Since Stewart could not compete with the cheap steel fencing and railing common to track housing throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, it increased its footprint in the chain link fence market landing the contract to line the US new super highway system with Stewart chain link fencing from coast to coast. In the 1960’s the remaining Stewart heiress married the factory foreman bringing in a new era of company management. Stewart continued to focus on jail cell manufacturing up until the 1980’s and the development of electronic security systems. The 1990’s brought a new emphasis in traditional craftsmanship and design; true wrought iron had become popular again. Suddenly the liability of hand forging and the missed opportunities in mass production had become Stewart’s greatest asset; the company still retained traditional wrought iron manufacturing skills and equipment not maintained by the competition. As the company again revived its reputation as a leader in ornamental metal work, new opportunities arose in the Casino and Hospitality industry attracting the attention of new investors.
In 2005, Stewart Iron Works was purchased by a group of investors eager to showcase quality manufacturing in Northern Kentucky. Under their guidance, Stewart Iron Works has expanded production beyond traditional wrought iron fencing into a wide range of steel, aluminum, bronze, glass, and stainless steel products. Recent projects include 3,000 ft of custom aluminum fencing for Disney World, all of the ornamental metalwork for the new clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass, the St. Regis Hotel and Convention Center in Atlanta, GA and a mile of stainless steel fountains for Columbus, Ohio’s Scioto Mile Park.
Today, the Stewart Iron Works Company is once again recognized as a leader in the architectural ornamental metal industry, and continues to build American hand-made quality products for our nation’s finest landmarks, residences, parks, and attractions.