Wood stoves and wool clothes

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Oct 24, 2019
Courtesy of: Marion Tucker-Honeycutt The old Flexible Flyer.

And snowshoes.

Why does winter always seem so disproportionately long?

And it seems that the older I get, the longer they get.

When I was little, up on the farm, I loved winter and deep snow and high drifts up against the old red, wooden snow fences. (We never see snow fences anymore, at least not wooden ones that can actually hold the snow back pretty good from the road.)

We even had them along our farm road. They were the stuff for digging great snow caves. And we had those great old Flexible Flyers, the wooden sleds with steel runners and "flexible" handles that allowed for steering and control. You can operate them sitting up and steering with your feet or take a bowling alley type run, throw it down and belly-flop onto it and then steer with your arms. The distance between the runners and the wooden surface you sat or lay on — and with a bit of "flexible" there, too, your backbone didn’t get pounded. Nothing made today can compare.

I still have one. But I’m afraid belly-flopping is long beyond me, except accidentally.

Then there were the snowshoeing jaunts, hauling a toboggan, with Grampa Roy. One would be to collect pine boughs before the snow got serious to bank up against the farmhouse for insulation. Grampa would lug his banking-boards from the woodshed to lay over the boughs. This would keep the snows from packing down the boughs while allowing for air pockets between and in the boughs and the boards. This created better insulation.

Christmas approaching meant another trip on snowshoes and dragging the toboggan off to the forest for a tree. Back home, my brother and I would make chains of cranberries and popcorn (strung like beads, for decoration. If you leave the popcorn to "age" a few days, it’s easy to string a needle through without breaking it apart.

Then with red and green construction paper and white school paste, we would cut strips to paste round links, green-red-green-red, into long chains to also drape on the tree. Then Grammie Mable would get out her box of beautiful glass ornaments and we’d be set for Santa.

We’d scramble out of bed and into the sitting room, scooting first beside the parlor stove, and then look for what Santa left under the tree. Rather than multiple fancy wrapped and ribboned boxes, we would see that Santa had left whole sacks of gifts, one sack for each of us. (In later years, I remembered those Santa Sacks had looked very much like Grammie’s pillowcases.)

There would be gifts from aunts and uncles and our other set of grandparents, and from daddy who was off fighting the war, first in Europe and then across the Pacific. Mama would send something from Boston or Connecticut or wherever she was living and working at the time. Grampa and Grammie’s gifts were most often handmade and wrapped in the colored "funnies" paper.

My favorite of those gifts were the made-to-size snowshoes that Grampa had made for me, Canadian Ojibwa style with red and green yarn tufts on the edges. And Grammie’s gifts were hand-sewn or knit, like the sweater she made from a raveled wool Army sweater of daddy’s and knit pretty green stripes on the arm and bottom borders. And another year, she knit a pair of special wool mittens, red and white with the old honeycomb pattern. I still think of them every winter. And we always got a newly knit pair of wool socks.

Come January, the “Month of the Snapping Trees” (from the deep cold), would come the “Stalking Moon,” as the Indians named it. On the full moon, it would shine so bright — bouncing its light off the fields of snow and through the woods — that you needed no lanterns or flashlights to see. And so you could follow the deer tracks easily and "stalk" them. Grampa never shot deer at night but it was a great adventure for us kids.

I was too young and too small to do shoveling, splitting and lugging wood and other such chores come winter. My chores were inside with the warm wood stoves. So I thought of winters more as full of fun times. And I still love snowshoeing, although I must admit, my snowshoeing days are probably behind me.

Give me the friendly, steady warmth of a purring wood stove that keeps the cold at bay outside, especially with today’s houses, with insulation and tight windows. The farmhouses back then were not insulated and the storm windows not tight. Jack Frost would paint his icy paintings on the inside of the windows by the time dawn came. It took an average of 24 cords of wood a year to heat those farmhouses and keep three wood stoves going.

My Grampa was still hauling, splitting and lugging the winter's firewood in his late 70s. My brother was big enough to help and Grampa had made him a scaled-down bucksaw. I remember one time when Grampa bet him 50 cents that he couldn’t fill the big wood box behind the cook stove. (Grampa was a master at making chores seem like fun.) My brother filled it three times that day.

When my kids were young, I used to knit all winter: sweaters, hats, mittens, scarves and socks. And I never used anything but wool. There’s a reason sheep wear wool. It’s warm. Really warm if you knit with raw wool. Raw wool has been cleaned but has not had all the lanolin washed out. You can get wet and it may steam, but you’ll stay warm.

A few years ago, I snapped up a wool L.L. Bean Scandinavian pattern sweater. These are sweaters — used to also call them ski sweaters — with Scandinavian patterns of four or five colors. As the colors are knit across to make the patterns, it creates a separate layer of wool from each color, making for an extra warm sweater. It’s more like a jacket, warmth and wear-wise. Wool does not absorb body odors, so you don’t have to wash it any more often than you would a jacket.

However, over the past few years, people got out of the habit of wearing wool sweaters because of the chore of washing and drying them. They had to be washed by hand or dry cleaned. Then too, dry cleaners started disappearing. First, the ones that would pick up your cleaning with their truck every week and bring it back next trip. Then the local dry cleaning shops faded away.

So people started using man-made synthetics that could be tossed into the washing machine and dryer. But the man-made fibers didn’t have the soft natural colors of wool and they certainly aren’t as warm. Most sweaters today are a blend if they have any wool at all.

As for knitting these days, I’d have to take out a bank loan to buy the wool. However, after that first L.L. Bean sweater I snagged, I started browsing eBay. There are lots of the old vintage wools and patterns, especially from England, on eBay. These are sweaters that originally sold for upwards of $350. I started collecting them with the caveat to myself: “Spend no more than $20 for one.”

I now have a collection and they have become my winter wardrobe. Woolite makes dryer sheets — like softener sheets — that you can toss in the dryer with three or four sweaters, and 20 minutes later, clean sweaters. But I won’t use any brand but Woolite because the others stink to high heaven of chemicals. I use only Woolite and then take them from the dryer, hang them on hangers and put them on the clothesline for a super fresh smell. And that’s another plus for winter. Little to no ironing.

And so, it’s not so much the cold that bothers us but that we just have to counteract it. Feet on the toe-warmer rail of the wood stove and real wool ski-sweaters and tall, shearling-lined boots go a long way to bend winters our way.

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


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