Some things do get better with time: home heating


As a long, cold winter finally winds down, I was thinking about how comfortable most of us are in our homes with modem heating plants, thermo pane windows, and fully insulated walls and ceilings.

Even though fuel costs have gone up, and will probably continue to climb, all we really have to do when we’re chilly is to crank up the thermostat a notch or two. In no time, a blast of warm air comes pouring from the registers in each room and we’re nice and toasty again.

Things were different. Of course, being well into geezerdom, I remember when things were different.

The large, 10-room farm house, near Darlington in western Pennsylvania, in which I grew up was built in 1850 by my great-great grandfather to replace a log house that he and his family had lived in since he bought the farm in 1834.

The house was originally heated by four fireplaces, two downstairs and two up. At some point, a single story addition was built onto the rear of the house and it had a large, stone fireplace as well.

Smelling smoke

During the winter after I was born, Dad woke up one night smelling smoke. He ran downstairs and found the floor in front of the fireplace in our living room was afire. This frightened my parents and before long, that fireplace was tom out, along with the one above it in a bedroom, and a brown metal coal burning space heater was installed. My grandparents lived in the other half of the house and, although the fireplaces on that side were left in place, they got a space heater in the downstairs room as well. I have no recollection of the upstairs fireplaces being used, although I think the one in the rear addition still was.

Coal burner

Of course, the kitchen range was a coal burner as well, and even though my mother had no kind words for the recalcitrant thing’s vagaries of temperature when she was baking, it at least helped to keep the house warm.

So, the only heat that got upstairs was what rose through the open stairwell, and that wasn’t much. Neither the walls, nor the attic contained a single R-value of insulation and the windows were single-pane, double-hung sashes and, while I don’t remember any actual snow blowing through them, the glass would freeze solid on the inside with the intricate patterns of 0l’ Jack Frost on cold days.

Cold mornings

I remember, as a boy, crawling out of bed into a freezing cold room and racing downstairs to huddle next to the coal stove as I got dressed for school.

Naturally, in the winter, my sister and I had to wear long brown cotton stockings that were held up by a harness-like apparatus that was called a “supporter.” In our house, the name had been corrupted at some point to “scorters,” and so we wore “scorters” and stockings — funny, I don’t remember what kind of underwear we wore.

Personally, I hated those long brown stockings (although they were useful at Christmas, holding much more than a sock).

Wet feet

My problem with the stockings stemmed from the creek that ran alongside the one-room school I attended. That creek was a magnet to me and I was continually getting wet feet from the thing, either from wading in water above my 4-buckle arctics, or from breaking through the ice.

If I came back into school with wet feet after a recess, the teacher would make me take off my shoes and stockings so they could be dried next to the pot-bellied stove in the center of the school room. It was so embarrassing to fumble around beneath my bib overalls trying to unhook those stockings from the “scorters” and then peel those long, soggy things off.

On the other hand, Mom abhorred wet feet, and if I came home from school that way I’d get paddled, so it was probably better to dry them at school.

But I digress; back to heating the farmhouse.

New furnace

Sometime during the early 1940s, an Amish family bought a farm in Enon Valley, which wasn’t far from Darlington. In keeping with his religious principles, the new owner tore out the coal furnace that had been in the previously English-owned house. Dad bought that old furnace and hauled it home.

Similar to many farm houses of the era, ours had a dirt-floored cellar beneath only half of the house, and it was taken up by other uses. So Dad dug out a space for the “new” furnace by hand, wheeling out the dirt and rocks on a wheelbarrow. I don’t recollect who, if anyone, helped him install the furnace, but it was ready to use by the following winter.

There was a hot air register in each downstairs room, but the only way to get a pipe upstairs was along the stairwell, so there was one double register upstairs that opened one way into a bedroom and the other into the upstairs hall.

Now we were living! There was no blower, but there was a draft control mounted on a door frame downstairs that allowed us to “turn up the heat” if we desired.

Labor intensive

Of course, someone had to start a fire when the weather got cold, and the furnace had to be fired periodically during the day and adequately banked at night or it would go out.

Ashes had to be raked out and hauled away (my job when I became old enough), and coal had to be hauled from one of the coal mines on our property and shoveled into the cellar. There was lots of dirt and soot and sometimes smoke to contend with as well, but we had central heating!

That furnace seemed like a really big deal to our family at the time, and I reckon it was, but I’ll stick with Columbia Gas, my high-efficiency furnace and my thermostat, thank you just the same.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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