Keeping the old house in the head of Blair Branch warm enough to keep us from freezing to death in January required a lot more effort than did, for example, trying to prevent heat strokes in July.
Every evening just before dark, my brothers and I found ourselves packing in several buckets of coal to feed an open hearth fireplace, a kitchen cook stove and a big “Warm Morning” heating stove that occupied our major living quarters. We also had to pack in firewood for the open hearth but, even it, had to be “banked” with coal to smolder throughout our sleeping hours.
In those days, everybody on Blair Branch heated with coal and wood. Coal could be purchased cheaply from any of the several, little mines on the holler. Many, if not all of us, had access to woodlands to supplement the use of coal, but a coal fire would usually last all night without tending. Wood was not nearly as reliable unless you wanted to get up a few times during the night.
Just before daybreak, the first person up would use an iron “poker” to stir up the smoldering coal and the dormant hearth would literally erupt into a blazing fire. Our parents used the same principle to bank coal in the big heater and the cook stove.
By the late 1950s, when I was 7 or 8 years old, we had acquired an electric “range” for cooking but the old coal/woodstove was still the only way to keep our kitchen warm. During cold weather, it also baked a lot of morning biscuits and simmered many pots of soup beans throughout the day.
Our electric stove was actually more of a nod to finding comfort from midsummer heat than it was to improved cooking techniques. The summer heat was simply bad enough without having to build fires to do our cooking. Still, I remember yearning for the first cool mornings of autumn when we could fire up the coal/wood-fired cook stove. Biscuits and cornbread tasted infinitely better than their electrified versions. Soup beans, in my humble opinion, were scarcely fit to eat unless they were cooked on something with a fire in it.
The only winter time advantage the electric stove had over the fired one was when it came to making homemade candy. We quickly learned that it was far easier to keep fudge from scorching when we could keep the electric burner at a constant temperature and that was almost impossible on the fired stove. We used a cooking thermometer to get the boiling mixture to the exact temperature the recipe called for.
The days of testing drops in cold water, to see if the candy was ready to set, ended with that electric stove.
We boys usually made batches of candy during cold weather, two or three times a week, but we cleaned up our messes and washed all our dishes in water heated on the old coal/wood stove. Still, I’ve seen mornings when last night’s dish water had a skim of January ice on it because someone forgot to throw it out.
Our nod to running water was to run out to the well and draw a bucket full and then run it back into the house. It was not unusual for the water bucket to be frozen over so hard, come early morning, that the dipper wouldn’t come out until someone had fired up the old stove and let the bucket sit to thaw on it for a few minutes. I don’t recall the well ever freezing over, which means that our kitchen was often colder, indoors, than the water in our outside well.
Still, if I had it all to do over, I’d gladly do it again, but not unless I was 60 years younger. I’m way too old to be packing in buckets of coal every night and I’m reasonably sure my grandkids wouldn’t do it for me. Actually, I’m absolutely positive on that one.