Fighting the chill of winter

Published 6:05 pm Tuesday, January 29, 2019

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I don’t know the percentage of houses that still had woodstoves in 1950, but out in the county, I would guess that pretty close to half of the small farmhouses continued to use wood fires to at least supplement their home heating requirements.

And you didn’t have to conduct a door-to-door survey to determine that. All you had to do was make a trip to Bell Hardware, Smithfield Hardware, Smithfield Farmers or Farmers Service. Each of those stores kept an inventory of “tin heaters,” and sold quite a few of them every fall.

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Some farm wives were still cooking on a cast iron woodstoves in 1950, but as rural cooperatives brought the magic of electricity to farms, long-suffering farm wives were quick to put an electric “range” in their kitchens. Our farm, located on was was historically known as Red Point Road (now officially Benn’s Church Boulevard) had electricity a bit earlier, and I only vaguely remember the cook stove that was jettisoned in the late 1940s.

Electric ranges were wonderful appliances, but they didn’t heat the house, and wood stoves remained an important source of heat for many families for another decade or so. The reason was simple. Wood was inexpensive on the farm — labor intensive, to be sure, but still inexpensive.

Farmhouses came in all shapes and sizes, but the great majority of them were rambling structures, with rooms and wings added on as need and finances dictated. Many, like ours, had a breezeway, also known as a “dog trot” in some parts of the south, that connected the main living spaces with a semi-detached kitchen. My parents had closed in the porch shortly after World War II and installed a bathroom at the same time. The closed-in porch was opened in the summer and closed in the winter.

None of the old farmhouses were insulated, and the small tenant houses that dotted the county were worse — usually, a lot worse. Wherever there was a chimney, though, there was an opportunity to fire up a wood stove. All it required was a metal floor mat (insulated with asbestos, no less), a stovepipe, a tin heater and some wood.

We had two, one in the kitchen and another in my sister’s upstairs bedroom. (We boys had the unheated room across the tiny hall.)

An unheated room was an incentive not to dawdle. It didn’t take long on a January morning to jump into a pair of dungarees (while still in bed under a quilt), pull on socks, shoes and a flannel shirt and race from upstairs down, through the dining room, across the closed-in breezeway and into the small kitchen, where a tin heater sat glowing and popping, just as welcome as a cup of hot chocolate.

Tin heaters, as the name clearly describes, were made of thin sheets of metal. As they heated up, the expanding metal would make tiny popping sounds and, if they got hot enough, they would glow in a dark room.

There were other, much more expensive varieties of wood stove that could be found in living rooms. They held more wood and produced more heat. They often had a flat top that would accommodate a pot of water to ad moisture to a dry room, or heat a pot of coffee.

But wood was on its way out as the primary source of heat. By the 1950s, many rural homes had at least one oil stove. They were freestanding, kerosene-fueled upright boxes. A firebox was generally surrounded by what was considered an attractive exterior cover, usually with a baked enamel finish. The family that had a large Siegler or DuoTherm oil heater in the living room lived in relative comfort and felt they had taken a giant step, particularly in convenience. Just turn the nob to open a carburetor, let kerosene flow into the fuel pot, then light it. Instant fire.

Many oil stoves also had small fans that circulated their heat to a larger area. Things were getting sophisticated by then.

Also introduced during those days was the floor register. A square hole was sawn in an upstairs bedroom and a metal register inserted in it, generally in the vicinity of a downstairs wood or oil stove. The register would be opened and excess heat from the fire below would warm the upstairs room. It was awfully nice to change into pajamas while standing above a floor register.

My sister and I could go to her room, open the floor register and listen surreptitiously to conversations the adults were having downstairs in the living room. That was particularly enjoyable on evenings when our mother hosted a meeting of the church circle. Boy, could those ladies gossip.

Nice memories to have on a winter day in 2019, when all you have to do to warm a room is turn up the thermostat.