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Columns: Winters were all about keeping the fire burning

WORTHINGTON -- I knew Tony Durband. Tony Durband was our coal man. This requires explanation, I know. No one knows a coal man today. Tony Durband drove a flatbed truck with upright planks along the edges of the truckbed. Tony would back across la...

WORTHINGTON -- I knew Tony Durband. Tony Durband was our coal man.

This requires explanation, I know. No one knows a coal man today.

Tony Durband drove a flatbed truck with upright planks along the edges of the truckbed. Tony would back across lawns, sometimes even through snow drifts, until he was even with the windows which opened on basement coal rooms. Tony would then open the windows and begin shoveling with a scoop. A ton of coal. Two tons of coal. Everyone needed coal.

Tony had hard and busy days. He seldom had to wear a heavy coat. Shoveling coal kept him warm.

I don't know how many Tonys there were at Worthington. Every lumberyard had at least one. Albinson's. Lamperts. Peavey. You called and placed your order -- you called well before you needed coal. No one wanted to run out of coal and have the voice from the lumberyard say, "We can't deliver before tomorrow."

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Once you got the coal, your problems were ended. Somewhat. You had only to go to the basement, scoop coal from the coal room into the furnace. Heat the house. Well -- more or less.

Very often the chore of shoveling coal into the furnace was a housewife's chore. Husbands were off at work.

Very many furnaces had no ducts. Heat lifted through a single large grate located typically between a living room and a dining room. That grate was where you wanted to be when you dressed in the mornings. 

Each night -- bedtime -- you were in the basement and poking into the furnace another time. You hoped you could bank the fire -- keep the fire smoldering so that when you returned to the furnace in the morning you had only to shovel in more coal and, soon, have a roaring blaze going once again.

If you were unsuccessful in banking the fire -- if the fire burned out during the night -- you had to begin over by putting kindling in the furnace, some sticks or some pieces and scraps of wood. Pour some kerosene on the kindling and toss in a burning match. Once a kindling fire was flaring you could go to the coal room and begin your coal shoveling another time. 

Keeping warm in winter.

A funny thing: everyone counted the furnaces and the kindling and the coal a part of the wonderful new age. No one liked coal furnaces dearly but they were a marvel nonetheless, a way to keep the houses around the town warm in snow and cold. As you went about every town you could see where coal had been added recently, where furnace fires were roaring. Black smoke lifted through the brick chimneys of those houses. 

All winter long soot settled over the snow which covered the lawns and gardens. There was a lot of black snow from town to town.

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Soot was familiar to everyone. So was coal dust. When Tony shoveled a new delivery into the coal bin, black coal dust filled the air. It had a way of settling everywhere. If you did housecleaning, you would judge coal dust is the worst kind of dust.

No one imagined things could ever be better. There were automatic stokers. Stokers rolled coal into a furnace shovel-free. Some people dreamed of a day when they might have a stoker. 

I was talking about this lately to a girl named Esmeralda. Esmeralda is eighteen. Maybe 19. She could not believe people could live in such a climate with such arrangements for heating houses and store buildings. I had to stress to Esmeralda that the coal world was a modern world. 

People remembered that mom and dad lived in a house where there was nothing but a cook stove. They stoked wood and cob and coal fires in their cook stoves, at least to keep the kitchens warm. There were blankets for the bedrooms in the nights.

And some people remembered the stories of Gramma and Grandpa living in a sod house, or literally in a hole in the ground, a kind of cave house.

How good things had come to be since those primitive old times. How wonderful it was to have a fire roaring in a coal furnace.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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