Laura Dean Bennett
Often too hot to touch, but always beckoning us near, the wood stove was the heart of most homes not so long ago.
How I loved the cook stove in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house.
The wood stove is a symbol of a lifestyle that most of American society has forgotten.
But not so around here.
And guess what?
Old-fashioned-styled cook stoves may be back in vogue. They are being seen again in some of the most modern kitchens.
But back in the day, they were essential to everyday life.
Not only were all meals cooked on the stove, but the stove also provided a good share of the home’s heat during the cold winter months.
A wood cook stove did so much.
It was where we dried our mittens and boots.
And a box behind the stove provided a warm place for a cat to have her kittens.
And let’s not forget – a hot tea kettle always sat at the ready on top of the cook stove.
And at my Granddad and Grandmom’s, since we didn’t have indoor plumbing, the deep water reservoir in our cook stove was a very valuable feature.
We used its hot water for cooking, washing dishes and even for baths. It just needed to be kept topped off with water carried in from the well pump.
And it also served as a dryer.
We hung a clothesline up behind it, from the corner of the kitchen cabinet to a peg on the far wall.
Clothes would be washed by hand or, on laundry day, in the wringer washer – into which we poured hot water from the cook stove’s reservoir.
In the winter, we’d hang up the laundry behind the stove. We had to duck under it to go through the kitchen door, but the clothes got dry in no time. And they were so warm to the touch!
Some cook stoves may have even saved lives.
My grandmother’s best friend, Neva Wilfong (Mary Lou Dilley’s mother), lived on Brown’s Creek in the farmhouse where her granddaughter, Pam Sharpes, and her family now reside.
When her premature baby boy, Charles, was born, Grandmother Neva placed his cradle on the open oven door of her wood stove, where he spent his first weeks of life surrounded by its warmth.
There were three wood stoves in Granddad and Grandmom’s house.
In the winter, those three stoves burned day and night.
Granddad would get up once or twice a night to “feed” them.
All summer long, when he wasn’t busy with a million other farm chores, he’d be cutting old trees and splitting wood.
I can remember being ever so proud when I learned how to split kindling.
In the summertime, the two stoves that were only used for heat weren’t lit, and the cook stove would be allowed to burn down at night.
But first thing in the morning, whoever was up first would put “a chunk” of wood in under some kindling and light the cook stove.
Sometimes the embers in the firebox from the previous day were still glowing hot enough to start up a small chunk of wood without having to re-light a fire.
Breakfast, dinner and supper and all the baking and hot water needs in between were all served by the cook stove.
I loved watching Grandmom tending it.
Whenever she told me to, I would scurry to the woodpile to bring in more wood – and have to clean up little bits that had fallen on the linoleum floor.
When I was old enough, I savored the fact that I could be trusted to keep an eye on the fire in the wood stove and whatever was being cooked or baked that day.
The smell of burning wood always takes me back to those days.
A little bit of history
It’s thought that the word stove comes from the old English word stofa, meaning an enclosed space.
Humans have always needed to be close to a fire.
We lived beside and cooked over fires.
The first cooking fires were arranged on broad, flat stones on the ground.
Later, basic masonry constructions were built to hold the wood and the food.
Simple, open ovens were used in ancient Greece for baking bread and food.
By the middle ages, we were using tall brick and mortar hearths, which often had chimneys.
Cooking was done by placing the food in metal cauldrons and hanging it above the fire.
Historians believe that the first written record of an oven, referred to an oven built in 1490 in Alsace, France.
Improvements to wood burning stoves have always focused on trying to contain the smoke, and provide more heat.
Wood-burning cook stove efficiency took a leap forward when they were built with holes over the fire chambers.
On top of these chambers, cook pots with flat bottoms could be placed directly upon the stove.
In the American colonies, famed inventor and founding father Benjamin Franklin patented his own stove design.
Franklin’s mind always turned on practical matters, including the problem of how to evenly and inexpensively heat a room.
In the 1740s, there was a wood shortage in Philadelphia.
It inspired Franklin to improve upon the existing open hearth.
His three-sided iron box, aptly named the Franklin stove, was patented in 1744.
It used only a quarter as much wood as did a fireplace and could more quickly raise the temperature in a room.
The Franklin stoves were originally called “Pennsylvania Fire-Places.”
Franklin himself wrote the first advertisement to publicize them.
In it, he claimed, “If you sit near the Fire, you have not that cold Draught of uncomfortable Air nipping your Back and Heels, as when before common Fires…being scorcht before, and, as it were, froze behind.”
Franklin’s stove featured an ingenious recycling system that constantly forced warm air down from above and back into the room, where it was needed. He also claimed it was more efficient than other stoves and fireplaces.
It burned less wood – a great advantage for those who lived in towns, where wood was in short supply and cost money.
Cook stoves were also sought after because they were economical. They saved on wood and provided a convenient cook top.
Robert Bailey Thomas, founder of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, wrote in 1823:
“So then, you have a cooking stove! This is economical, saving much wood and labour. I know it by experience. But many people are so prejudiced against them that they will scarcely look at one. Wood has become a cash article nowadays in my neighborhood. I have procured me one of Rich’s cooking stoves and think I save half my wood by it nearly.”
But some cooks preferred to stay with their old-fashioned hearths. They were accustomed to recipes written for open-hearth methods.
There were those who would not be convinced for more than a generation.
Harriet Beecher Stowe once said that “men would never go off to battle if all they had to return to was a big ugly piece of iron.’’
In the 20th century, those in the market for a wood stove had lots of brands and designs to choose from.
It was hard to unseat the ubiquitous, “pot belly” stove which had been popular in America since the early 1800s. But when there was more money to be spent on stoves, the larger and more elaborate designs began to come into favor.
Many of these stoves were fabricated from steel, rather than cast iron.
Around the turn of the 20th century, along came stoves with a porcelain – or enamel – finish.
These beauties were an instant sensation. The enamel came in many colors, a concept that revolutionized the kitchen.
For the first time, the focal point of the kitchen was more than just utilitarian.
But when gas and electricity became available almost everywhere, wood and coal burning stoves for heating and for cooking fell quickly out of favor.
Since our neck of the woods has usually been a little behind popular trends, wood stoves retained their value much longer here.
In fact, some families still use their old stoves.
Nothing is more homey than the sight of smoke rising from a chimney.
And that wonderful smell of wood burning!
Oh yes, there’s a lot of truth in the old saying: “Wood warms you thrice – when you chop it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.”
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at email@example.com