Joseph Culligan: "The Iron Man of Memphis"



For more than half a century, if you wanted ornamental ironwork done for your home in Memphis, you paid a visit to Joseph C. Culligan.

He was apparently quite a character. Born in Ireland in 1889, he served an apprenticeship with blacksmiths and foundries in Liverpool, England, before emigrating to the U.S. in 1915. He moved to Memphis, so I understand, because his sister was already living here, and by the 1920s had established Culligan Iron Works, a thriving business that survived until the mid-1970s.

Culligan became good friends with Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson, and as a result his company wound up forging most of the decorative ironwork — railings, signs, bannisters — for the majority of Holiday Inns around the country, which was a plum contract, let me tell you. He pretty much pioneered the ornamental iron business in this city, crafting ironwork for The Peabody, Methodist Hospital, the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, the old Shelby County Jail, and quite a few private homes here.

I know of a home near Rhodes College that has wrought-iron gates forged by Culligan Iron Works, which feature unusual twists and turns, with the top railing of the gates hammered into a pair of ducks' heads. He was known for creating elaborate and fanciful designs.

For a blacksmith, he led a rather elaborate and fanciful life. He did work for Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley (though he did NOT do the famous gates at Graceland), and in the files of the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis are several photos of a dapper, tuxedo-clad gentleman dancing the night away at various social affairs around town.

Now I know you might think those are photos of ME, but look closely, and they are indeed Joe Culligan.

Why, I even turned up a Polaroid snapshot of him taken in the 1970s with the blonde bombshell pinup girl Mamie Van Doren, which she signed on the back, "To Joe, You're the Best!"

The very next item in the Culligan file at the U of M was a newspaper clipping headlined, "Culligan Seeks Divorce." Now, I don't know if that had anything to do with Mamie Van Doren, but you have to wonder. Among other things, he complained that his wife "in public has greatly embarrassed him" and one day "fled St. Joseph Hospital in a bathing suit." Oh my. That would be embarrassing. What I want to know is: Why was she wearing a bathing suit to the hospital in the first place?

Culligan Iron Works was located downtown on Washington in the 1920s and 1930s, but by the 1940s had moved to 4926 Old Summer Road, just east of Mendenhall. Judging from the old city directory listings, that's apparently where he lived, too. Today, the site is nothing but a vacant lot.

When Culligan died in 1978, a local newspaper columnist noted, "With his passing, a little bit of Americana died as well." The Iron Man of Memphis was quite a guy.

And take a look at the photo I've run here. If anybody knows where this magnificent lion is, please let me know, will you? (No, they are not the former Hill Mansion lions, now at the Brooks.)


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