I don’t own one anymore (not for many moons) but I miss my wood stoves. I used to chop wood with a long-handled ax, so damn heavy to lift overhead, it’s a wonder I didn’t split my head open instead! Back then, my arms were strong as if doing daily trips to a gym for “strength training.”
A maple tree stump served as our chopping block, by the woodshed, where I could grab a chunk of wood easily. Standing up a piece of hardwood on the cut side, the ax came down on the opposite end and sliced through the grain, ending up with two pieces. But since I needed smaller pieces for the cookstove, I’d chop the split wood again until I had four pieces. Using a smaller ax, the strain on my back muscles was a lot less than the big ax. The act of chopping wood meant my cookstove burned hot and bright, the tea kettle on the back was full of boiling water for instant coffee. Baked goods were thicker if the oven thermometer rose to 400 degrees, crisping up the biscuits to being hard, not very chewable.
Green wood was a whole different game. Due to moisture stored in the wood grain, the ax head didn’t slice through, getting stuck halfway down or bounced out entirely. My husband had sharpened the ax head once and didn’t warn me. The damn thing bounced from the log into my knee cap, blood oozing, and a mad dash to wrap a tourniquet before heading to Dr. Jardin’s house in Lyndonville, where he practiced.
The smell of freshly cut wood was heavenly to me. As the hardwood piled up by the stump a strong satisfaction welled up knowing all that heaving and sweating would result in comfort, later.
Stacking wood was a chore I hated. Bend over, grab a piece, try to balance, and make neat rows so the wood layer didn’t bulge out when dislodging a piece to lay in your arms. If the pieces of split logs were stacked high I could watch a half row of wood tumble to the ground, if stacked too loosely. Usually, three trips to the wood box by the kitchen stove were enough work for me. Fingers stiff from the cold, I never wore gloves so the exposure was painful after two armfuls of firewood. Some folks can endure a lot more pain than me.
If you’re not ready for winter with at least three cords of wood dried and stacked you soon learn why green wood is the meanest thing to keep a person alive when artic air from Canada snuck into every crevasse of the windows and walls. Green wood barely throws off any heat and I later learned a newly married couple “up north” could file for divorce if the husband only offered green wood by the third winter.
Using wood that hasn’t been dried for at least six months could lead to soot build-up in the chimney or pipe that ran from the stove to the outdoors. The soot could catch fire and a chimney fire could mean the whole place could burn down as sparks flew and landed on the roof. I lived through one chimney fire and it was my husband's quick thinking that calmed the sparks down by pulling out burning wood with tongs, rushing to the outdoors, and flinging the flaming wood into the snow. I’d never bypass another spring cleaning of stovepipe after that hideous scare when the soot caught fire.
And what if the chainsaw wouldn’t start after yanking on the starter cord five times? Or run out of the lubricant needed to mix with the gas for the saw to run smoothly. The town was 20 miles from our cabin door where the chainsaw place called Stahler and Sons could repair a failing saw or sell you a new one if money wasn’t scarce. The business stood where Rite Aid built their grand drugstore, always busy with homeowners and loggers who depended on wood and a smooth-running saw.
One time I was so miserable with a stove that barely threw off enough heat, I chopped up four antique kitchen chairs. Smashing them with the ax head, they broke easily while I delighted in the glow of a cherry-red stove for part of the day. My two small children danced around the stove, too.
If the barometric pressure dropped, the lids on the cookstove would rattle and puffs of smoke leaked out into the air. Locals called this “blowback” which made my eyes burn and tear up, wood smoke filling the room. Fortunately, the phenomenon didn’t last long. But wood smoke would cling onto our clothes, hair and even skin as distinctive as if we worked around a farm with manure everywhere.
When everything was right there was nothing to compare to wood for heat as the thermometer dropped down beyond thirty degrees. All those worries or work would dry away as you stepped into a room from the outdoors, to warm your backside near the stove. To hear the crackle of wood-burning or a tea kettle steaming up the air so your lungs could relax with this natural moisture was a comfort you can’t find easily these days. I’m so glad I got to experience woodstoves before they disappeared from most houses, replaced by modern heat and electric ranges.
Sandy Raynor lives in St. Johnsbury. She moved to Northern Vermont in 1967.