The Swedish Bergsmännen or homesteaders were independent farmers and iron producers who owned their own land and forests. The ancient homesteader culture, which dates back to the Middle Ages, was a cooperative system for mining and smelting using blast furnaces. Sometimes several villages would get together and build a smelting house. The homesteaders extracted iron from the iron ore, and supplied the pig iron to the ironworks, which would refine the pig iron into the all-important bar iron.
A State mining authority ensured that the bar-iron forges were not sited too close to the smelting houses, blast furnaces and mines—with a view to protecting charcoal supplies. The homesteaders would often not have the wherewithal or the technical skills required for making bar iron, and even their pig iron was of uneven quality. So they would often end up in conflict with the ironworks.
The owners of the ironworks would endeavour to protect their supply of pig iron by seeking permission to build their own blast furnaces. Sometimes they succeeded in buying into the homesteaders’ smelting cooperatives by acquiring, by fair means or foul, the homesteaders’ property. They would also try to lease the share of an inactive homesteader’s holding in a smelting house.
The homesteaders formed an association (Brukssocieteten), which, in turn, formed a powerful trade organization, Jernkontoret, which received a royal decree from the King in Council in 1747. The Association had technical advisers who would provide advice to homesteaders on operation of the smelting houses. The Jernkontoret is still there today, situated in the centre of the city of Stockholm.
The importance of the homesteaders to the iron industry gradually diminished, although some of the more active ones adopted a more modern role as independent owners of an ironworks; others simply became farmers again. The regulations applying to homesteaders were abolished in the mid-19th century, but some smelting-houses continued operating, unchanged, long afterwards.
The homesteader villages consist of timber buildings, erected a little any old how, a reasonable distance from the jointly owned smelting house. Their work had to fit in with the demands of the farming year. Once the often meagre harvest had been gathered in at the end of the season, the homesteaders turned their attention to the forest and the mining of iron ore. Opencast mining, whereby fires were lit against the rock to make it brittle, so that the rock could be broken away using a crowbar, continued as late as into the 19th century.
Many of the homesteaders had their own workers to do the hard work. To light the fires they needed wood, but the really heavy consumption was generated by the demand from the blast furnace and, later, by the need for charcoal for the forge furnace. The charcoal from one stack lasted no more than two days in the blast furnace. But it took 120 man-days to produce the charcoal and bring a load home.
At the end of the year, the leader of the smelting works would convene a meeting of the owners—often no more than eight homesteaders. By this time they should have taken their ore to the ore heap and built their charcoal stack. The chief stoker of the blast furnace should have bricked up the bottom of the shaft and checked that the bellows, water-wheel, troughs and dams were all in order. The homesteaders took turns to man the bellows, and because the furnace was less efficient towards the end, they would often draw lots to determine the order in which their turns would come.
Generally, the production of pig iron would begin when the spring thaw started the rivers and streams flowing. The first job was to roast the ore in the pit furnaces until it was glowing. The blast furnace had to be fired and was fully charged with charcoal—it would take two weeks for the furnace to reach its operating temperature.
The ore was crushed into pieces the size of a cobnut or hazelnut, either on the ground or up near the top of the blast furnace where it would be stored in a special box. The stoker would introduce the charge, which would consist of a rotation of charcoal, limestone and iron ore, into the furnace, and it would then take about 15 hours for the charge to reach the bottom of the shaft. The number of days a homesteader would spend in the blast furnace would vary, but the stoker, who also tapped the melt, would know when the iron for the next homesteader had reached the hearth at the bottom.
The molten iron was channelled into sand moulds on the ground, where it would solidify into pig iron. The number of the smelting works and the homesteader’s mark would have been cast in the iron. The authorities strived to get the homesteaders to mix their ores together for a more uniform quality, but in vain! This was because the homesteaders insisted on keeping an eye on their own ore; if one of them had ore that had been poorly roasted, or poor-quality charcoal, he could be punished by having his ore blasted last.
Once the molten iron from the final charge of ore had been tapped at the bottom, leaving just the residual charcoal to burn itself out, the job was done. This was celebrated by partaking of some simple food, and by drinking “last-charge” beer , a ritual akin to a harvest festival. Afterwards, there was a general clearing-up around the smelting house and removal of the clump of iron remaining at the bottom of the furnace. The slag would be piled on top of the ever-growing heap, unless it had been cast into slagbricks for building. The pig iron would be carried into the store shed pending transport to the iron-weighing house and the ironworks.
When mining is mentioned in the oldest royal charters, it seems that the industry was already pretty well organized. A possible explanation for this could be that its formulation took place at the height of the legislative period in Sweden. The country’s most ancient law, the Västgötalagen, was written in c.1220. It would appear that from an early juncture the Crown was eager to claim ownership of the mines. King Gustav Vasa refers to earlier documents when he writes that, “All iron ore in Sweden belongs to the Swedish Crown”.
However, the royal charter in the 14th century gave the homesteaders the right to use the mines, subject to a number of conditions. One was that they should pay tax on a proportion of their production, although they were exempted from paying other taxes. The term “Mining copyhold” (something less than a freehold) occurs for the first time in the royal charters for Kopperberget and Åtvidaberg. The mining districts seemed to have had their own laws, and some of these differed widely from the provincial laws; for instance, the homesteaders were granted exploitation rights that allowed them to clear, cultivate and build on land in the vicinity of a mine and subsequently to bequeath it—in other words, to pass it on in their wills.
The tight regulation that characterized mining and its associated activities is reminiscent of the way that livery companies or craft guilds operated. But as well as having been granted many rights, the homesteaders also had a duty—to produce iron. Nor were they allowed to sell their land to someone who merely wanted it for its forest.