The importance of firewood |

The importance of firewood

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

I just finished cutting, splitting and stacking four cords of firewood in time for winter. A pickup truck, chainsaw and hydraulic splitter reduced the physical labor. Even so, there were ample hours for reflection on firewood folklore.

Early accounts of the fall firewood tradition appear in “The Lost Journals of Charles S. Armstrong: From Arkport, New York to Aspen, Colorado.” Armstrong lived and worked up the Castle Creek Valley, in the town of Highland, near the Conundrum turnoff. During late August and early September he gathered raspberries and made jam. In September he cut hay for winter feed. In October he harvested carrots, turnips and potatoes. He didn’t get around to cutting firewood until November and early December, so he usually cut more in March when he was running low.

A typical Armstrong journal entry read, “I have been getting up wood for the house today. Used Old Jerry (his mule) to pack it.” Often Armstrong paired up with a partner for hauling and cutting. Using jacks, they would drag trees to their cabins, where they cut and split them into stove lengths.

There are so many paintings and illustrations of men chopping wood with an ax that you may conclude that trees were turned into firewood using that implement. That would be a slow, arduous approach to the task. Miners like Armstrong cut their firewood with saws. With plenty of time during cold winter evenings, they honed their saws to the sharpness of a razor blade. Two strong men operating a sharp two-man saw could cut through a one-foot-diameter trunk about as fast as a modern-day chainsaw. They did work up more sweat, though, than a man with a chainsaw does.

A miner’s body had its limits. With age, the task of feeding a stove with firewood became the physical challenge of each day. Coal stoves were a savior, but many older miners had so little income that gathering firewood was their only heating and cooking option. My father loved to tell the tale of a local character known as Pan Handle Pete. In the 1920s he visited Pete’s home, where Aspen’s male old-timers gathered to gab. Pete cut aspens for his firewood and stacked them up outside his small home. Instead of cutting them into stove-sized lengths and splitting them, he would drag a whole tree inside and prop it up on one end of a bench, and stick the other end into the stove. As the end of the tree burned inside the stove, he would push more of it in until there was nothing left. He would then haul in another tree or two. Pete’s labor-saving shortcut kept his house warm, as long as he didn’t fall asleep and let the fire work its way out of the stove.

Feeding the stove was a routine chore that interrupted conversation or saved a host when he ran out of tall tales. Two Midnight Mine miners, Shorty Anderson and Johnny Taylor, told my father about a weekend adventure in town. Taylor’s version: “Shorty and I got to drinkin’ and run into a guy from Leadville that Shorty knew and after a while we all went to Shorty’s shack. It was cold and the stove was out of fire. Shorty folded up some newspapers to start a fire in the stove and asked me to go to the woodshed for kindling. I found half a case of powder (dynamite) and came back with my arms full of sticks, just for a joke you know, and pretended I was going to toss the stuff into the burning paper. Shorty said go ahead and I did. You should have seen it. The potbellied stove and stovepipe turned red then blue and I went outside and there was a big blue cloud of smoke all around the place. But the stove and chimney took it.”