Friday, October 18, 2013

Artisans of the State House: The Ironmaster

On October 19, 1785, exactly two-hundred twenty-eight years ago tomorrow, the auditor general recorded a payment of ₤21.7.9 to "Simon Ratalick" for iron work to a public pump.[1] This seemingly unremarkable entry was actually one of several state payments to Annapolis "ironmaster" (or blacksmith), Simon Retallick. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Retallick completed various projects for the Maryland State House, including the dome's famous lightning rod.

In the first of several upcoming features on the lives of the artisans who worked on the Old Senate Chamber, today's entry will look at a local blacksmith whose work at the State House can still be spotted by any passersby today.

Simon Retallick was born circa 1752 in the town of St. Issey in Cornwall, England to Richard and Elizabeth Retallick. The Retallicks of Cornwall appeared to have been from a long line of skilled craftsmen. Little is known about Simon's youth until, at the age of 22, he registered himself as a blacksmith traveling to Annapolis as an indentured servant on board the Peggy Stewart.

The Peggy Stewart made history upon its arrival in the port of Annapolis in 1774 with a cargo of tea. By that time, Annapolis had adopted a policy of refusing any ship that carried tea to unload any of its cargo. However, a significant part the Peggy Stewart's cargo included approximately fifty indentured servants on board, who would likely not survive a return voyage to England. While the people of Annapolis debated what to do with the vessel, the indentured servants, Retallick among them, were forced to await their fate aboard the ship. After several days, the indentured servants were released, and the ship was famously burned on October 19, 1774 in what is remembered as the "Annapolis Tea Party." This early rebellion was captured in Francis Blackwell Mayer's The Burning of the Peggy Stewart, on display in the Old House of Delegates Chamber.

The Burning of the Peggy Stewart by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1896, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1111.
Once safely in Annapolis, Retallick likely began work under blacksmith Isaac Harris, a respected townsman who had forged a professional relationship with the colony and the Continental Navy. Retallick undoubtedly benefited from Harris' governmental and military associations, and these probably helped him to quickly establish his own reputation. In 1787, he opened his shop on the corner of Church (now Main) and Green Streets, nearby the docks. Also on Green Street was Retallick's home, which is still standing today. In February 1780, he had his first account with the State House, only a year after construction had been completed, for supplying two iron chimney backs. These were likely placed in the Senate and House of Delegates Chambers, possibly in 1779 in preparation for the reopening. Retallick continued to complete various commissions for the State House between 1785 and 1788, including iron work on the windows and cleaning the smoke jack. In what was likely his final commission with the state, Retallick was paid for supplying a pair of andirons as part of John Shaw's contract to refurnish the Old Senate Chamber in 1797.

Simon Retallick is most famously credited with the construction of the lightning rod on top of the dome of the State House. Although Benjamin Franklin did not build the lightning rod, it was designed to his specifications under the supervision of dome architect, Joseph Clark, who paid Retallick in 1788 for thirty-two days of unspecified iron work. The rod stands at twenty-eight feet and is anchored to the dome through a gilded acorn, which was replaced in 1996. Despite being struck multiple times, the original lightning rod continues to protect the State House today.

Simon Retallick's account with Joseph Clark, 1787, Maryland State Archives, MSA S 1004-91-21167. This payment was likely for his work on the construction of the lightning rod.

Simon Retallick died in 1799, but his legacy continued to live on through his survivors. His wife, Elizabeth Retallick, took ownership of his shop and apprentices, and entered a legal partnership with Retallick's former business partner, Richard Goodwin. In 1801, his son, Simon Retallick Jr., established his own blacksmith shop on Cornhill Street. During his time in Annapolis, Retallick Jr. worked on the State House on at least two occasions in 1800 and 1801.[2] In 1804, he moved to Baltimore where he was present for the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814, and, in 1819, he enlisted in the military as an artificer at Fort McHenry.

Artisans, like the Retallicks, frequently existed just outside of well-recorded history. While many details of their lives have been lost, evidence of their work has survived, frequently in the form of payments by the state. Research into the names that appear on the State House receipts, therefore, is necessary to better understand the experiences and achievements of these individuals. Genealogical and probate records, many of which are in the collections of the Maryland State Archives, can help to provide valuable details. By understanding the lives of the people who contributed to the Old Senate Chamber, we can better attribute the work that took place in the room to people who would be otherwise forgotten.

Image of the original eighteenth-century lightning rod on top of the State House. Photo credit to Jay Baker, Governor's Press Office, 2007.

For more information on Simon Retallick or the lightning rod, please follow the links to his bio page and the State House website.

[1] Auditor General (Peter Force Collection B-2), Journal, 1785, ff. 461, MSA S 150-5, MSA SC 4391.
[2] In 1800, he was paid for repairing locks on the doors of the State House. The 1801 record does not describe exactly what work Retallick Jr. performed, but rather, listed his name among workmen requiring pay. Maryland State Papers (Series A), MSA S 1004-113, MdHR 6636-84-76. See also MdHR 6636-84-64.

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