Staying Warm the Oldtime Way

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal

We’re having a cold snap here in Kentucky. Of course, it’s supposed to be cold in January in Kentucky. But it’s not cold all the time. We have days mixed in that are almost pleasant with sunshine and temperatures way above snow weather. Then we’ll plunge back into the freezer. We’re in one of those freezer weeks now with temperatures in the low teens. Not really all that bad. It’s not minus anything unless the wind starts blowing. Then the wind chills might get a bit nippy. 

The cold spell got me to thinking about my growing up years. We lived in an old farmhouse. The front two rooms had been a log cabin, but the house had two back room and two upstairs rooms added on to it. The outside was covered with wood siding that had to be painted every five or six years. I painted it once. I didn’t mind painting. I hated scraping off the old paint. 

Except for those old logs, the house wasn’t insulated – at all. The cold winter winds pushed right through the cracks and crevices. You never had to worry about not enough fresh air. We slept on featherbeds under piles of quilts and didn’t mind sharing that bed with a sister. And we wore our socks to bed. Some people who grew up the same way I did remember bricks heated on top the wood stove and wrapped in towels to warm the bed. My sisters and I were made of sterner stuff than that. Either that or we didn’t have any bricks. LOL. 

But how did we keep warm? Wood stoves. By the time I can remember, my mother had an electric range for cooking, but she also still had the wood cookstove similar to the one above in the kitchen. In the winter she kept a fire in it mostly to warm the kitchen, but while it was warm she did cook on it. Notice the water tank on the right side of the stove above. That was an old fashioned water heater. The wood went in on the other side and had to be split in small pieces to fit. The top was a warming oven where leftovers could be kept for latecomers to the dinner table. The top burners lifted off – you had a special tool for this – so that you could poke the fire to adjust the temperature for cooking. It wasn’t so bad cooking on a stove like this in the winter time. But my mother-in-law still cooked and canned on one for a couple of years after I got married. In the summer the kitchen would be stifling, but she kept her family fed.

We had another stove in the living room just for heating purposes. This was a fancy affair with a steel lining and a jacket over the steel outer part that served two purposes. It made the stove more attractive and made it less likely a child would get severely burned if he fell into it. We could bank a fire in it and have live coals come morning to start the heat going again. Less attractive was what we called the drum stove. That one looked to be made out of half a barrel with a tin top. It had four shiny legs and a stovepipe that went straight up out of the back part of the top of the stove. It had a lining that would burn through after a few years of use. Then sometimes small holes would burn through the sides of the stove. 

I looked on the internet for a picture, but didn’t find one. I found plenty of drumstoves, but none like the old fashioned ones. The good thing about those stoves was how easy it was to start a fire in them and how quickly they heated up. The bad things about them were that the fire generally burned all the way out before morning and it took constant refueling to keep the fire going. Also, many a child suffered burns from stumbling into the stove. Including me. I don’t remember it, but I have the scar to prove it. A small neat little scar shaped something like a diamond that looks more like a birthmark than a scar now.

But then my mother tells about when she first got married and they only had the grate – that’s the metal wood or coal holder in a fireplace. She says they slept upstairs and sometimes when they came downstairs on a cold morning, the teakettle sitting on the hearth would be frozen. So you can imagine how getting a stove where the fire would make it through the night and be easy to stir up and feed in the a.m. would make her very happy. Now I have a digital box on the wall to make me warmer or colder. But I don’t have the fun of learning how to tend a fire to keep the biscuits in the oven baking and the bacon on top the stove sizzling and the grits on the back of the stove simmering. Of course, when I was a kid, I also got to have the “fun” of carrying in wood to stack on the back porch for the fire.

In my book, Angel Sister, my teenaged sisters, Kate and Evie, struggled to cook on a wood stove. It was a learned skill. One I hoped I learned well in my imagination to make those scenes real in that story.

Maybe the best thing about wood stoves and old farm houses is that they made for a lot of family togetherness in the winter time. It was too cold to get very far away from the stove so we didn’t scatter into separate rooms until time to crawl in under all those quilts to go to sleep.

How about you? What can you remember about the “good old days?”

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