Hobbit Houses?


During a random drive along Highway 41 this summer, my husband spied these abandoned coke ovens on the Cumberland Plateau. In the early 20th century, coal was king in this area of southeast Tennessee and north Alabama.Coal in this area was converted to what is knwn as coke. This  fuel with few impurities and a high carbon content, is made from coal.

The ‘hobbit houses’ are actually called beehive ovens: fire brick chambers shaped like a dome. The roof has a hole for used for discharging the coal or other kindling from the top. In a coke oven battery, a number of ovens are built in a row with common walls between neighboring ovens. A battery of ovens varied, sometimes going to hundreds in the Northern U.S. and parts of the U.K.But, as you can see here, this was probably a privately owned business with only a few ovens used. The nearby railways and highway made for use of distribution, with Nashville, Birmingham and Chattanooga being connected to the area.

Following the U.S. Civil War and into the early 20th century, employment in the mines saved thousands of lives for the displaced people of the Southeast. Even though the work was brutal and seasonal, it gave people a way to feed their families until they could gain enough money to move west. Many stayed in the Appalachian Mountains.


Sewanee, TN in the early 20th century

Coal is placed in the top of the ovens to produce  even layer of coke. Air is supplied initially to ignite the coal. Carbonization starts and produces volatile matter, which burns inside the partially closed side door. Carbonization proceeds from top to bottom and is completed in two to three days.  The exhaust gases are allowed to escape into the atmosphere. The hot coke is covered with water and discharged, manually through a side door. The walls and roof maintain enough heat to initiate carbonization of the next round.

When coal was burned in a coke oven, the impurities of the coal accumulated to form slag, which was a mixture of the removed impurities. Since it was not the desired product, slag was destroyed. However, it was later found to have many uses and such as making bricks, cement, shingles and fertilizer.

Although it made a quality fuel, coke poisoned the landscape. After 1900, the serious environmental damage of beehive coking attracted national notice, even though the damage had plagued the district for decades.Eventually, other was to make it was discovered, and other fuels grew in popularity.


 Highland Park distillery in Orkney Scotland roasts malted barley for use in their Scotch whisky in kilns burning a mixture of coke and peat.


McNeil, William H. The Pursuit of Power. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Beaver, S.H. (1951). “Coke Manufacture in Great Britain: A Study in Industrial Geography”. Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers). The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers (17): 133–148. JSTOR.

My late grandfather. RIP.

Highland Park Distillery, U.K. https://highlandpark.co.uk/about/the-distillery/

All photographs and videos are public domain or belong to the author.

  1. This is so cool to read about. I actually live in the Cumberland Plateau, in Cookeville TN. I have never heard of teh Coke Ovens, so to me this was especially interesting. My son loves to go caving, so we are always looking for new places to explore the landscape of our local area. Thank you for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s