Wood Stove Stories
I padded down the stairs from our unheated bedroom to the cast-irony banging noises of a wood stove wrestling, so it sounded, with an alligator. The kitchen was colder than usual. Normally when the temperature is expected to dip into the low twenties or below overnight, we build up a coal fire before going to bed. This unstylish fuel burns long and hot and keeps our place quite comfortable through the wee hours until the edge of daylight, when a heap of free spruce takes over the job of keeping my large kitchen warm.
A pile of anthracite in the cellar is a good reliable reserve where kerosene is sometimes impossible to come by and rationed, where hardwood must be trucked in by ferry at great expense, and where the occasional whiff of coal gas on initial combustion isn’t all that objectionable to a rail-fan and a blacksmith anyway. Ignore those advertisements on television about “clean coal,” however. There isn’t any such a thing.
Don’t look down your noses at my pile of spruce firewood. The price is right — it is mainly cut to clear island power lines or for other necessary projects, and would have just been rotting biomass otherwise. Yes, we know enough to let it dry first, on account of creosote. No, it does not last long in the fire, but I work from home, and can stoke the stove as often as needed. In fact, neighbors who stop by with various bits of business often find me with my feet up on the wood stove oven door, toasting my toes, coffee mug at hand and my laptop, a legal pad, or paperwork of some sort balanced on my knees. It’s a rough duty.
About the coal — the thing is, you’ve got to have the right stove grate. If the gaps are too wide, the coal will just fall through, unless you buy that really big stuff made for furnaces and that is harder to get started and probably overkill for a kitchen stove anyway. You also need to be able to get rid of considerably more ash than you’ll generate with just a wood fire. Stoves built for coal normally have a “shaker grate” or a slide mechanism you can shove back and forth or some such rig, and a removable ash pan underneath. Our sliding grate had been broken and jammed for quite some time, meaning each day one of us puts on the welding gloves (to avoid burning all the hair off the back of our Neanderthal knuckles) and knocks a couple of inches of ash and clinker down through the grate with a big steel hook.
Clinker is burnt up coal, with all the fuel gone, blobs of melted residual mineral suitable for filling potholes, sprinkling on slippery driveways, and importing by the container-ship-load for certain industrial processes. There, now you don’t have to look that up.
The grate at the bottom of the firebox had simply given up. A through-and-through hole the size of a tennis ball was melted right in the middle, rendering the grate useless. After twenty-five years or more, this wasn’t all that unexpected, but here on Matinicus Island one cannot just run down to the local stove grate emporium and purchase the required replacement. Paul had been trying to find parts (including a grate) for this stove for several years, but the Tirolia Stove company of Austria alas is no more, and nobody seems to have spare bits (we could also stand a firebox door and hinge assembly and one of the round handles). The advantage to this stove, and why we do not just save up for its replacement with another brand, is that the oven is huge, large enough for a major Christmas turkey or one of those large baking sheets. It is intended for use, not looks, so the oven cooks with a balanced heat making it easy for real and routine use. Baking in the wood stove with a Tirolia does not require that one be an experienced historical artifact docent. This stove makes wonderful bread.
All you have to do is remember that since it was built in Europe, the thermometer on the oven door is metric. Our friend Suzanne (who does happens to be an expert in historical artifacts and an old-house-museum docent, for that matter) was watching our kids once and attempted a batch of muffins in the wood stove. She got that thing to 375 degrees all right, but I don’t know how she did it. We’re not sure how she could stand being anywhere near the stove at that point. 375 degrees Celsius is about 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and her muffins were hard black lumps when she took them out, which caused no end of theater and hilarity for herself and the children. The top of the stove must have been pretty near cherry red and translucent. In her defense, she had a bad cold that day.
Let us backtrack. Before I was even out of bed, Paul had discovered the big hole in the grate, probably uttered a few Anglo-Saxon oaths, and set about to manage the repairs. He remembered somehow that back in the 1970’s his father (who died in 1979) had ordered a spare grate for his own stove, a Stanley from Waterford, Ireland. It seemed that the general configuration of the Waterford stove and the Tirolia were not that dissimilar. Paul called his mother, who was in Florida at the time hoping in vain for a little warm weather. “Any chance you have any idea if that stove grate is still around and where it might be?”
The answer was as succinct as it was welcome. “I think it’s under a bed upstairs.”
Paul got rigged up, found the key and drove down to his mother’s unoccupied island home, where he made his way upstairs, and in a few minutes, was home with a brand-new, mid-1970’s cast iron grate, still in its Irish packing material. All it took was a few minutes with a hacksaw to make one adjustment; most of the dimensions were just right for our stove.
By the way, a call to Bryant Stove Works in Thorndike assured us that getting on the airplane, flying to the mainland and driving up there would not have solved our problem; they’d have had to order it anyway.
Paul called Florida and told his mom that the part was perfect and he’d order another one to have “in stock” for her own stove. They decided that it would probably be made in China, though, and likely not be that good Irish iron.
I tell this story for all those who believe that nonsense about “if you haven’t used something in a year, throw it out, you don’t need it.” That is a lie, and a ridiculous fad, and in no way a sensible attitude for an islander.
Eva Murray keeps warm all winter on Matinicus Island