VAN NORMAN, JOSEPH, iron-founder and entrepreneur; b. 12 May 1796 at Sussex, N.J., son of John Van Norman and Sarah De Pue; m. 25 Aug. 1817 at Pembroke, Genesee County, N.Y., Roxilana Robinson, and they had at least seven children; d. 14 June 1888 in Tillsonburg, Ont.
Shortly after his birth, Joseph Van Norman’s family moved to Canandaigua, N.Y. He developed an interest in iron manufacturing and this led to his building a small furnace which he operated for two or three years before moving to Manchester (now part of Niagara Falls, N.Y.) as a foreman in a foundry. In 1821 he immigrated to Charlotteville Township, Upper Canada, where four years earlier, John Mason, an English ironmaster, had established a primitive ironworks. Mason, attracted to the area by the availability of good iron ore and water-power, had built the ironworks at the site of the present town of Normandale, Ont. The furnace went into operation briefly, but only a few tons of iron were produced before Mason’s death.
On 22 Aug. 1821 Van Norman agreed to purchase the site from Mason’s widow, Elizabeth, for £25 cash on possession. Future payments were contingent on the success of the enterprise, which was a risky one on the frontier, requiring specialized equipment and skilled workmen. Mrs Mason would receive at the maximum an additional £125 currency and £150 to £225 in kind. Van Norman was joined in the purchase by various partners who, by early 1823, included Hiram Capron and George Tillson*. The partners spent between $6,000 and $8,000 to rebuild the furnace, and, employing 20 men, were soon producing iron. In 1824 or 1825 George Tillson sold his share to Capron and moved to present-day Tillsonburg, where he set up the Dereham Forge. On 7 May 1828 Joseph Van Norman and his brother Benjamin bought out Capron, and in about 1829 Elijah Leonard* joined the firm in charge of the furnace. Joseph became sole owner on 1 Jan. 1836.
He was also active in several other iron ventures: in 1823 or 1824, in partnership with a Mr Lamont, he founded at Port Dover, Upper Canada, the Dover Forge which he owned by 1827. In the late 1820s and early 1830s Joseph and Benjamin Van Norman were among the owners, who included Frederick R. Dutcher, of a foundry in York (Toronto). But the furnace at Normandale, or Long Point as it was often called, was Van Norman’s main venture. At its peak, in about 1840, annual production was roughly 750 tons of cast and wrought iron products for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. Its stoves, probably the first manufactured in Ontario, were certainly the first produced in quantity. As well, the need for locally dug iron ore, and for over 4,000 cords of wood per year for charcoal, provided an important economic stimulus to the region.
By 1847 Van Norman found that nearby ore and fuel supplies had dwindled so low that he had to move. For $21,000 he purchased the ironworks at Marmora, in Hastings County, from Peter McGill [McCutcheon*], but like his predecessors, Uriah Seymour and John G. Pendergast, failed to make it succeed. The Marmora ore, because of its high sulphur content, was more difficult to reduce than that of Normandale, and although Van Norman made the ironworks a technical success, he found himself unable to compete with imported British iron, the price of which had been lowered by the improvement of navigation on the St Lawrence.
Returning to Norfolk County, Van Norman won a contract with the Great Western Railway to provide iron for railway car wheels, and built a blast furnace in Houghton Township in 1854. When the iron proved to be of the wrong type to harden as was required for railway use, Van Norman lost the contract. This loss, coupled with the economic depression of the period, led to the closure of the foundry. Van Norman’s career as an iron-founder ended, but he continued to engage in business. Since the late 1820s, in conjunction with his iron-making, he had been active as a contractor. His projects had included the construction of the Long Point lighthouse in 1830, the first Long Point cut in 1834, and plank roads connecting Port Dover with Hamilton and Otterville from 1840 to 1848. Following the closure of the Houghton furnace, Van Norman moved to Tillsonburg, probably in 1863, where he manufactured bricks, lime, and shingles. Here he spent the latter part of his life, living with his daughter, Mary Ann, who had married a son of his old business partner, George Tillson.
Joseph Van Norman’s death in 1888 attracted little notice; he had not been active in iron manufacturing for nearly four decades. Yet he must be regarded as one of the most important 19th-century pioneers of the industry in Ontario and the men he trained in his shops made good use of their skills in other ventures.
UWO, J. A. Bannister papers; James Hamilton papers, Hamilton and Warren papers. F. H. Baddeley, “An essay on the localities of metallic minerals in the Canadas, with some notices of their geological associations and situation, &c.,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans., 2 (1830–31): 424. Ont., Royal Commission on the Mineral Resources of Ontario and Measures for their Development, Report (Toronto, 1890), 320–26. Observer (Tillsonburg, Ont.), 22 June 1888. Canadian biog. dict., I: 182–83. J. A. Bannister, “Long Point and its lighthouses,” Western Ontario Hist. Nuggets (London), 5 (1944). G. C. Mackenzie, “The iron and steel industry of Ontario,” Ont., Bureau of Mines, Annual report (Toronto), 1908: 190–94. W. J. Patterson, “The Long Point furnace,” Canadian Mining Journal (Gardenvale, Que.), 60 (1939): 544–49. Thomas Ritchie, “Joseph Van Norman, ironmaster of Upper Canada,” Canadian Geographical Journal (Montreal), 77 (July-December 1968): 46–51.