The farmhouse the Old Man and Mother bought in 1950 was a Century Home (and then some) in the center, with wings built two different laters, and a basement (under the center house only). In that basement was a gigantic (to a small boy) cast iron coal-fired furnace wrapped around with galvanized sheet metal. This giant gray monster was to be my nemesis for years to come.
For heat distribution from this dinosaurian relic, there was forced air. Large, round, asbestos-covered pipes ran under the wings of the house to heat the back bedroom, extra living room (eventually to be an apartment and finally a hospital), the bathroom, the kitchen and the dining room. These pipes terminated in registers and the air in them was driven by a huge fan. There were return pipes for the ‘cold air.’
The center of the house contained a three-foot square return register at one side. This register had been the hot air register when there were no wings, and no fan. It opened straight to the top of the furnace. Against the opposite wall was a smaller register (about twelve by eighteen inches) which had been the ‘cold air return’ when the furnace was a gravity heater. The roles had been reversed when the fan was installed, which meant that there had been a ‘choker’ installed in the feed to the large register to reduce the airflow (it would have been a gale).
The upstairs was heated by having a register in the center of each bedroom (there were two), and keeping the ‘eyebrow’ window at the head of the stairs cracked open to encourage circulation. It was NEVER warm upstairs so long as we had no forced air up there.
For the first few years, every winter day when he came home, the Old Man would go down to the basement and stoke the furnace. Loud and mysterious noises (along with coal dust, ash and smoke) would assault us through the spaces between the floor boards. Every night before bed he would return to the furnace and “bank” the fire for the night… a mysterious (and noisy) process that I associated at the time with my cast-iron bank into which a mechanical mule would kick a coin when I placed it in a holder and pushed down a lever. Every morning, the Old Man would get up before anyone else and re-fire the furnace, accompanied by the loudest racket of all.
I turned 13 in July of 1955, and the Old Man decided I was old enough to take over these duties. For several days he accompanied me to the basement three times a day, and walked me through the process. Against one wall of the basement lay a sloping pile of bituminous coal. Lumps ranging in size from pebbles to larger than a man’s head, had been dumped down a slide, and allowed to assume their natural “angle of repose.”
The first day, the Old Man handed me a squared-off shovel that he called a coal scoop, and took a smaller, longer-handled square-fronted shovel himself. “We need to clean this mess up.” He indicated scattered coal on the basement floor with a wave of his hand. We scooped and pushed scattered coal back toward the pile against the wall until the floor was ‘clean’ of coal. The floor was old, broken and uneven. ‘Clean’ was, at best, a relative term.
“Time to build a fire.” He picked up a fist-full of newspaper from a box by the furnace. Crumpling it loosely, he stuffed it into the furnace, walked over to a pile of scrap wood stacked against the wall opposite the furnace door, and laid narrow pieces of wood in a criss-cross pattern on the paper. He picked up an oddly elongated bucket he called a ‘scuttle,’ and went back to the coal pile. He filled the scuttle with smaller pieces of coal, and placed a mix of coal ranging from very small to fist-sized into a loose mix on the paper and kindling.
The Old man slid a small bar to the side, opening a vertical grate in the bottom door of the furnace. He then went to the side of the furnace and pulled a lever built into the wall next to the chimney base. The lever opened a flue in the chimney. The bottom grate and flue together established air flow through the fire-box.
Taking a kitchen match, the Old Man lit the paper, watched long enough to be sure the fire was established in the paper, and closed the furnace door. He returned to the coal pile and selected larger lumps, up to head size, and brought them back to the front of the furnace. Opening the furnace door, he said, “You have to make sure the small coal is burning before you put in the larger stuff.” He took a poker and moved some of the lumps around. In only a few minutes, the fire had fully involved the small coal in the fire-box.
Picking up the scuttle, he tipped its elongated ‘lip’ into the door and shoved the scuttle quickly forward, pitching most of the coal into the fire. A couple of repeats, and the scuttle was empty. With the poker, he spread the coal out, and showed me how to regulate the ‘draft’ through the fire-box.
For the rest of my first ‘fire-week,’ the Old Man showed me the tricks of the trade of the furnace-minder. Banking the fire turned out to have nothing at all to do with money OR banks. The morning re-fire didn’t require the singing of hymns (the Old Man had never considered that they alone were loud enough everyone in the house awake), and the afternoon re-stoke was a pretty simple process of stirring up the coals and tossing in a half-scuttle of fresh coal.
For the next three years I was the house ‘fireman.’ Each morning, I would arise at 4:30 and go to the basement, grab an iron handle from its place against the stone wall, slide the slot at one end over a rectangular bar, and rack it back and forth rapidly and violently. That would open and close the grates at the bottom of the fire chamber, dumping ash and glowing hot coal pieces into the ash pit.
Opening the bottom door, I’d begin to shovel the ash into the scuttle. Once it was full, I’d pull on a pair of old welding gloves made of heavy suede leather that was permanently shaped into a near-fist, and grab the scuttle’s bail. By the time I reached the top of the outside stairs, the heat on the backs of my knuckles would be nearly unbearable. Sitting the scuttle down, I’d switch hands on the bail, grab the rear loop handle with my right hand, and pitch the ash onto the driveway that circled behind the house, where it would be crushed into a drainable surface as it was driven over. It usually took at least two scuttles to empty the ash.
I would then open the fire-pot door and begin shifting what was left of the “banked” fire, to bring the burning surfaces up to the top. Assuming the fire had not gone out (a seldom found occurrence after the first few weeks), I would take the scuttle to the coal pile and fill it with smaller coal, which I would dump into the fire-pot and distribute with the poker. Opening the flue and bottom door grate to the max, I would soon have a roaring fire. I would then toss in a half-dozen to eight head-sized and larger lumps, damp the flue and bottom door grate, and head upstairs. If I’d been quick enough, no one would be up yet, and I’d be able to perform bathroom ablutions without waiting for the Old Man… an interminable wait while he shaved, washed, and generally used up a half-hour or more of everybody’s day.
When the big yellow rattle-trap of a bus dropped me at the driveway, my workday truly began. I had a series of chores to do, but first was the furnace. I got on that bus at ten after seven in the morning, and it dropped me off at about three-twenty. After eight hours, it was often a gamble whether there would be a fire, or I’d have to re-fire the furnace. The Old Man worked from six-thirty to three-thirty with an hour for lunch. Once Lyndella was in First Grade, Mother worked the three-to-eleven (afternoon or ‘swing’) shift at the Ravenna Hospital, so there was no one to keep the fire going. Lyndella would wait at a neighbor’s in the afternoon until her “brother boys” got home.
To avoid going through the house in muddy or dirty shoes, I’d enter the basement from the rear stairs. The rear basement stairs were stone steps covered by “flop doors.” These were doors laid at a shallow angle that ‘flopped’ open onto the ground or closed. They were heavy, and the reach to the center to grasp the door handle provided no leverage to a short, chunky boy. More than once I got the top door partially open, only to have it escape and slam itself shut, sometimes carrying me with it. Eventually, much to the Old Man’s amusement, I rigged a small pulley on the side of the house, and ran some clothesline through it and tied it to the door handle.
If there was no fire, I had to shake the furnace down and start from scratch, just as if it were a first day of winter. If there was a fire the start was much easier… similar to a morning start. In either case, ash had to be pulled and dumped, and heavy scuttles of coal had to be pitched into the fire.
Every evening, I banked the fire. Banking consisted of shaking down a roaring fire to clear the ash, partially closing the bottom door grate and the flue to reduce the air flow, and hauling large blocks of coal to the furnace. Each head-sized or larger chunk of coal was placed carefully, using the poker, so that there was very little to no space between them. Airflow was thus further reduced, and the large blocks had few edges and corners for the fire to catch. They, therefore, burned very slowly… leaving (I fervently hoped) a fire from which to restart the furnace in the morning.
While people were in the house, the furnace was controlled by a chain thermostat. This gadget comprised a small geared set of wheels in a sheet metal box, with a hand-turned wheel. The chain went through the floor and operated the flue. The fire was controlled entirely by air-flow, and there was NO quick response. It was ALWAYS too hot or too cold. On weekends, I spent much of my day running up and down the basement stairs because the Old Man, always temperature sensitive, would never believe I had the amount of coal right, or the bottom grate, or had properly emptied the ash.
One summer, for a month of Saturdays, the Old Man and I went to the gravel mine where he worked and cut trees. We brought them home in my old ’39 red ‘n white Dodge quarter ton pick-‘em-up truck, sticking out the back, and damned near flattening the tires. The next summer I split logs into six to ten inch rails, and cut the rails into firewood on a tractor-driven buzz-saw. For one long winter, those logs substituted for coal. I started fires nearly every morning that winter.
But that spring, the money the Old Man had saved on coal turned out to have been well spent. He and a friend brought home a “stoker,” a most wondrous contraption. This device consisted of a large rectangular steel box with sloping sides. A motor at the end away from the furnace drove an auger that ran from the motor, through the bottom of the box, and into the furnace. A special firebox was set into the furnace and connected to the auger. A new thermostat was installed that sent a signal through small-gauge electric wires to the motor. My job became a lot simpler.
Crushed coal was delivered in the same fashion as the larger coal, and I carried scuttles full of it to the stoker. I would then soak it down to ‘lubricate’ the auger. Once the fire was started, the stoker kept it fed, based on temperature feed-back from the thermostat and the heat of the firebox.
Morning and evening, I took a special ‘poker’ that had a set of jaws and used it to grab a ring of clinker (ash melded into a solid piece) and pulled it from the fire-box. There was comparatively little loose ash, and virtually no powder. I’d carry it outside, just as I had the ash, and dump it. I’d grab a scuttle of coal, top off the stoker box, and wet it down. My work was done.
In 1960, I left for college. My younger brother became the stoker-minder. There is an advantage to starting with harder things and having them get easier. To hear him tell it, stoking that furnace and extracting the clinkers were jobs from hell. I had thought them heaven-sent.
In 1962, my brother and I joined the Army. Gas had come to our little country road... The Old Man bought a gas furnace.
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