Thank God — and Ben Franklin — for the wood stove

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Feb 06, 2014

For tens of thousands of years, man struggled to keep warm during winters, and not very successfully.

From primitive man huddled in smoky caves around their fires to the desert nomads in their tents burning ‘dung pies’ — and many still do, to the huge fireplaces that couldn’t begin to hold off the chill of the dank, cavernous stone halls of medieval castles, to the wattle and daub method used since Anglo-Saxon days and continued here by the Colonials, many have struggled against winter’s cold. (Wattle and daub was a mixture of sticks, soil and clay used in walls, a method so successful that there are still homes standing today in Europe built using wattle and daub that are hundreds of years old. Adding stone to the mixture, they built their chimneys and fireplaces.)

And so man shivered — and wore great layers of warm clothing and fur — to get through winters. Even though man has had and worked with metals for thousands of years, it took Ben Franklin’s mind to use it for a replacement for the drafty fireplaces. It’s only been 272 years out of the tens of thousands that we’ve been around, that we’ve had the iron stove, thanks to Franklin. Shaped basically like a fireplace, it quickly gained wide use. Franklin never took a patent out on his inventions, so that undoubtedly helped people both afford them and set up shop to make them to sell or even to make their own.

The farm house up on Tucker Ridge, built by my great grandfather Samuel in 1856, had three wood stoves. In the “cook room” was that marvel, the Clarion cook stove. It provided heat, a cook top, an oven, a 5-gallon copper-lined water tank for hot water, swing out rods for drying dishtowels and mittens, a warming oven above that would keep food warm for late comers to dinner and that wonderful chrome plated toe rail. If you’ve never come in from a mean winter’s day with freezing toes and sat in a rocking chair with your toes on the toe rail of a cook stove, you have missed out on one of life’s great pleasures.

In the “sittin’ room” was the parlor stove, tall and round and proud with its fancy design and mica-windowed door. A “bedroom stove,” in Grampa and Grammie’s room used the same chimney as the parlor stove. That chimney ran up through the second story giving a bit of heat up there — only a bit.

Up at five, Grammie would set about getting the stoves fired up and breakfast started while Grampa went down to milk the cows. Once the parlor stove got going, my brother and I would grab our school clothes and run for the sittin’ room to get dressed, hugging up to the stove.

Another big bonus of the wood stove was no heating bills. The farm had originally been 500 acres but was down to 100 when we kids lived there — still providing plenty of free wood. (Free monetarily, but certainly not labor-wise.)

People in the cities had coal furnaces and then along came the oil wells and ‘cheap’ fuel. In a few decades, most people had retired their wood stoves and coal furnaces in favor of the oil furnace.

Then along came the "oil shortages" of the late '70s. I was living in California at the time and I can tell you there was no oil shortage. It was totally contrived by the government. Working, producing oil wells were shut down. We had long lines at the gas stations. Cars with license plates ending in and even number could only get gas every other day — and odd numbers, the "other" every other day.

I moved back home to Maine at the end of December 1979. Oil prices were being jacked up to the sky. People had a hard time affording fuel oil. But the powers that be had people over a barrel — no pun intended. Pay the price or be cold. And in most states, that worked. But not in Maine.

Maine folk are an independent lot. Push ‘em and they’ll likely push back. And they did. Most houses still had their chimneys and many their wood stoves. They checked the chimneys for safety, lined them if necessary, and started chopping wood. That took the politicians by surprise so they tried to curtail that by proposing a law that would outlaw all those wood stoves and allowing only the new and very expensive ones coming on the market, the "air tight" stoves. (I was working at the time with WCCSA, as director of the Energy Crisis Intervention Program (ECIP), which put me in touch with experts in the field of wood stoves and wood stove/chimney safety.)

We Mainers dug our heals in. The ‘air tight’ proposal never got off the ground. And even after the availability of fuel oil came back, Mainers kept right on burning wood, if not full time, a good part of the season.

After living in Belfast for 10 years, I bought my house out here in the woods. The previous owners had had an Ashley wood furnace as well as the oil furnace. So there was a chimney that would take a wood stove. I dreamt of having one for a few years and in the mid-'90s, I got my first one. It worked well and my house being well insulated — unlike the farm houses of my childhood — warmed up easily. Then a few years ago, one of my sons gave me his wood stove.

This stove is a marvel. Hand constructed by a company or family in Maine by the name of Dover, it follows the basic "Franklin Fireplace” stove design. It has a blower which really cranks out the heat. I can’t find anything on the Dover stove. This one was made about 25 years ago. It’s a shame if they have gone out of business.

It is too hard these days for me to lug wood into the house but I am a fortunate old lady. My brother and my granddaughters keep tract of my wood box and see that it doesn’t go empty. And they, in addition to my grandson-in-law and a generous friend, have kept me in firewood.

Wood heat beats furnace heat, hands down. And my dog enjoys the stove as much as I do. His favorite spot is on the carpet about 3 feet in front of it, stretched out belly-side too — and mine is belly-side too, on the couch.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

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