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Pennsylvania artisan was known for his classic cast-iron fireplace designs. He says Chinese copies are killing him

Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

"They've managed to cripple me," one farmer said.

Jesus Espinoza, a spokesman for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said trademark infringement affects every industry, from telecommunications to fashion, even something as unique as firebacks.

"It's basically theft," Espinoza said. "Family-owned business are especially affected."

Country Iron Foundry, a Paoli-based fireback manufacturer, did not return requests for comment. Firebacks are also made in England, Belgium, and France, Conner said.

While firebacks are the bulk of Conner's income, he's also an inventor of sorts, making bird's-eye-view maps, illustrations, and wax molds. The Germantown native studied at the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia and made a living as a freelance commercial artist, designing a logo for Six Flags Great Adventure. Until Philadelphia's soda tax arrived, Conner made his own brand of black cherry soda for a decade, based on a recipe by the physician Philip Syng Physick, his great-great-grandfather. The soda was sold in Old City, he said, and he even held a "Phyzz Phest" every year at the Physick House on South Fourth Street.

"The soda tax, in seven months, killed it," he said. "It just got to be too much."

In recent years, Conner moved from an 1854 stone house in Germantown to a modern home in Hamburg, 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, that overlooks a rolling landscape of red barns and farm fences. He sketches and designs the firebacks in a home office, taking rubber molds to a nearby foundry. His home is filled with guitars and artifacts. One of his favorite fireback designs, "The North Star," shined behind the fake logs in his gas fireplace.

 

Conner said a chimney sweep friend had recommended making firebacks, and Conner was familiar with them, having seen a roomful on display in the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. He was licensed to make reproductions from Winterthur Museum. Some of Conner's pieces have been displayed at the Museum of the American Revolution. He's currently designing firebacks for the daughter of the late British children's author Roald Dahl.

But Conner says he can't compete with China and fears there could be more firebacks coming.

"One of my designs, 'The Field of Leaves,' was selling for less than what it cost me to make it here in Pennsylvania," he said. "How can you compete with yourself? I'd be losing money on every one."

(c)2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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