The Smithsonian first surveyed the Ironman (Iron Man) sculpture in Hartselle, Alabama in 1993 with the ‘Save Outdoor Sculpture’ project. Likely created in or around 1900, It is painted iron, sometimes silver and currently gold, 76″ in height.
Several years ago, I was contacted by the editors of ‘The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 23: Folk Art‘ about using one of my images of the Iron Man, and although they did not wind up using any image, there is a nice piece in the book about the sculpture. There, it’s estimated that the sculpture likely dates to 1913 and was created in a Bessemer foundry to advertise the medicine that was produced in the same town by the W.D. Taylor Chemical Company. The shape, with the two outstretched arms suggests that perhaps the sculptures were given to farmers to display roadside as well as perform the function of scarecrow, although there is no conclusive evidence.
In 1917, Meyer Brothers Druggist, a monthly catalog of items ‘in the Interests of the Entire Drug Trade’ lists Vega Cal with a price increase, the $.25 to $.35 and $.50 to $.65. This is just below listings for “La Creole Hair Dressing,” “Plantation Chill Tonic,” and “Mississippi Cough Bals.”.
From a visit in 2008:
One side, ‘VegaCal Gets the Bile” and on the other, “VegaCal for the Liver”
Reportedly, the Ironman stood in a pasture on property owned by Howard James. It stood on the old Neel Road, now Ironman road, about 200 feet from its current site. It is believed to date to about 1900 and may have been cast in Birmingham. The product it once advertised, VegaCal, may have been a patent medicine made in New Jersey. Statue has been stolen and vandalized, and repaired by State Highway employees. Reportedly, the Hopewell Homemakers Club repaints the statue every three years. IAS files contain related articles from the Decatur Daily, Feb. 26, 1977 and the Birmingham News, March 11, 1991.
The March 1993 Architectural Digest included a piece on Allan Katz’ trade pieces and other Americana (what a great story on a fabulous collection). He estimates at that time that perhaps only three or four of the Vega Cal men may be extant as so many may have been melted down during the Depression for scrap metal.
I contacted Allan recently, and he’s sold his sculpture; the one he had and one other are in private collections. Those plus the one in Hartselle may be the only three to have survived.
I visited the Vega Cal man about three weeks ago, and he’s still doing great:
If you know of any other Vega Cal iron man sculptures, or any stories about it, please contact me.