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Tony Vagneur: The warmth of coal and wood meant simpler times

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The recent COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow got me to thinking about the burning of coal and pollution and other things along those lines, and it sent my mind back in time when things seemed much simpler, but also more difficult.

The first Woody Creek log house I lived in is no longer there, taken away by fire, but its “antique” charm still resonates in my mind, even though we moved out of there when I was 3 years old. It had four rooms, two down and two up and I guess that takes away the opportunity to say I was born in a one-room log cabin when trying to force my illustrious past on the conversation.

That house had no running water nor electricity; the downstairs was heated by a wood stove in the kitchen and kerosene lamps were employed for inside light after dark. The two upstairs bedrooms were left on their own to absorb whatever evaporative heat they could from the ground floor. The memory of living there is still fresh and pleasant in my mind, although I wasn’t an active participant in keeping the place afloat. Naturally, you could say the burning of wood for heat is in essence the use of solar energy, as the beauty of a tree stores the energy of the sun.



We moved from there into a brand-new log house, one with running water but no electricity, at least not the convenient juice we have in our houses today. My dad had put together what was referred to as a “light plant,” a bank of batteries charged up each day by a large generator that sat close by. That was usually enough to keep the lights on until we all crawled in for the night.

Heat was provided by an oil-burning stove that sat in the corner of the living room. Oil stoves were common but dangerous and as a result, my dad turned the stove off each night before going to bed. Each morning, just before my siblings and I were rousted out of bed, Dad lit the oil burner. If it was 20 below outside, you can bet it was damned cold inside when we got up. I remember we’d stand in front of that stove, trying to get warm and get dressed at the same time. It was miserable, but an unavoidable part of our life at the time which we didn’t seem to question.




When I got a little older, like 10, it was my after-school job to build the fire in a small basement woodstove that heated the water for the nightly baths and dish washing. I’d split the kindling in the woodshed, haul it to the basement and build the fire up until that stove bordered on glowing red. Ah, there was a certain satisfaction in that which I’d sometimes like to have back. Forget to build the fire and I might get my hide tanned. Sometimes I’d forget on purpose, a childish power struggle, but the pressure of having the entire household dependent on my reliability, I quickly got over such obduracy.

It wasn’t much different at my grandmother’s high-ceilinged house in town. She lived there with three siblings, the only heat being coal. There was a coal stove in the kitchen, with a tank behind for heating water and a ceiling-high vent into the adjacent bathroom, which no matter, was always colder than hell in the winter. Almost every house in town used either wood or coal for heat.

In addition, there was a coal stove in the living room, which was on the other end of the house from the kitchen, a long stroll. In between was a large dining room, which generally stayed rather cool in the winter. Off of the living room were two bedrooms which once again, stayed very cold in the winter because the doors were always kept shut to keep the heat in the living room.

If you opened the doors to these rooms, not unlike what we call French doors today, before bedtime, just to give the bedrooms a little warmth, the cold air would rush out, making the living room an icebox. The women of the house heated rocks in the kitchen oven and brought them to bed with them, wrapped in towels, providing warmth under the ice-cold linens until their bodies warmed up the blankets along with the heated rocks.

Staying there overnight during the week was a study in stamina, particularly taking a bath. They had a cast iron bathtub, one of those clawfoot jobs that some people swoon over today, and by the time I’d get enough water in there to take a miserly bath, the cold iron of the tub had cooled it down to almost intolerable.

Every winter morning, a cloud of smoke hung over town and there was peace in the valley.

Tony Vagneur writes here every Saturday and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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