Eau Claire

I was brought up in houses with woodstoves. Wood heat, we called it.

“Wood heat is so much better,” visitors would say. Probably because there was so much more of it.

In the drafty, old farmhouses we lived in the two stoves roared away, throwing heat away with great abandon, happy to be consuming armloads of wood, wood boxes full of wood, using up the energy of little boys who kept those wood boxes full. Gleeful stoves, crackling with joy, red faced and happy.

The two stoves were the kitchen stove, called a range, and the living room stove, called a heater or parlor stove, exclusively identified, jealous of their place and duties. The kitchen range, cooker, baker, fryer, roaster and water boiler had a refined, lady-like personality. It didn’t mind being pampered with smaller wood or have her complicated vents, drafts, doors and lids caressed and handled. The kitchen range was a friend, huggable and musical and often enameled in pleasant pastel colors and bearing names like Kitchen Queen, Home Comfort, Supreme Comfort, Mealmaster, Home Enterprise or Excellent. On a cold winter day the open oven door was a perfect place to put frozen toes after coming in from cold outdoor chores or an afternoon of tobogganing. On many occasions it was a workhorse, cooking and baking for holiday gatherings or a ravenous threshing crew. My mother had nothing to cook on except a monstrous black secondhand range with six lids and a reservoir on the end after she and Dad decided to leave the comforts of the city to start farming in 1936. Ten years later he bought an all-white, brand new Majestic wood burner for her and a few years later traded that for a Monarch combination gas and wood range.

Mother’s most dramatic stove story was about the day Dad cleaned the kitchen chimney. Mid-winter and the snow outside was hard and crusty and Dad, a creative sort, cut a square of that icy crust just the size of the chimney, climbed a ladder to the top and dropped it in, blithely unaware of the compression it would create. Down it slid, cleaning the soot off nicely. Proud of his ingenuity, he entered the kitchen, startled by the wrath of a sooty wife standing in the middle of a blackened kitchen. She had recently washed, starched and ironed all the curtains and was finishing a general cleaning of the room when the stove pipe exploded off the wall and an eruption of soot spewed out. By the time I was old enough to understand the story it was a laughing matter, but I think the day it happened there was more than one source of heat in the kitchen.

Our living room heater was the common potbelly type, mannish and black, dedicated to heating only, one that held enough wood to keep fire for a couple of hours. Its sole occupation was keeping the room warm but it did have a decorative top that could be swiveled away, revealing a single flat lid on which a kettle could be set. When Mother and Dad retired on a frigid night he stoked it as full as he dared, closed the damper and draft and left it to burn as long as the wood lasted. When we awoke in the morning it was cold and so was the house. A new fire was started in it and the kitchen range and gradually bearable temperatures returned. By the time we children got out of bed the belly of the heater was cherry red and we got into our clothes as close to it as we dared, roasting one side and freezing the other. When warm weather returned in the spring the heater was carried to an outbuilding until fall, when the process was reversed.

Every respectable farmer in our time had a pile of firewood of sufficient size to last until warm weather, cut and dried by the time snow flew. To be properly cured it should have been harvested the winter before, a task done when fieldwork was over and labor could be devoted to “putting up” wood. My earliest memories of the process are of a neighbor bringing a saw rig with a circle saw — a buzz saw — powered by a single-cylinder engine, known as a one lunger or hit-and-miss, that putt-putted away as the crew fed pole wood into it. The bare saw, unshielded, teeth singing in the frigid air, was ready for wood or flesh — it didn’t care which. Most communities had at least one story of a tragedy or close call when an arm, a leg or something more fatal fell victim to the saw in a moment of incaution.

When John Henning brought his rig and three or four other neighbors showed up Dad would have a pile of pole wood ready, 6 feet high and 40 feet long. Two or three men lifted the poles to the saw, one at a time, rocking together as the sawyer sawed it into blocks and one man “threw away” as each block was cut off. Mother fed the crew each noon until the pile was done, at which time the crew and machine moved to the next farm. When all the sawing was done the splitting was begun and we boys stacked it in the shed to dry. As chain saws came onto the scene in the 1940s most saw rigs were parked in a shed and eventually scrapped.

I get nostalgic for woodstoves, especially the soft song of a tea kettle simmering on a back lid, ready to fill a tea cup or dish pan with hot water. I would like to sink a sharp chain saw into a nice oak log and swing a splitting maul at a block. As the storm howls around the house a wood pile affords a feeling of contentment and safety that no tank of oil or gas can offer. Wood heat really is better.