Wasilla homesteaders keeping warm in winter
For most poor homesteaders near Wasilla in the early 1950s there was only one way to keep warm in the wintertime: burn wood. It was hard work. Wood had to be cut, hauled from the woods, split and stacked. Hack! Pack! Crack! Stack!
Few families had running water, making bathing and washing clothes difficult. So everyone smelled like creosote all winter as the smoke permeated their clothing. Eventually no one noticed.
Stove types varied, but the most common was the barrel stove. It was a fifty-five gallon barrel with a door cut in one end and a hole for a pipe in the other. The barrel was laid on its side and a fire built inside. Sometimes a second barrel was laid on top of the first and used to heat water. Plain stove pipe was used because few could afford a modern asbestos chimney, becoming popular at the time.
Many homes burned to the ground in the middle of the coldest parts of winter. It was not unusual for a family to have to race out into the freezing cold clad only in their bedclothes. They had to make their way to a neighbor’s house the best they could to seek shelter and report the fire. By the time help arrived the home was usually a total loss. Sometimes part or all of the family died in the fire. After a burn-out a community drive was organized to provide clothing, food and a place to stay for the surviving victims.
I think the job I hated the most, when I was a child, was cutting firewood. It wasn’t fun. It was cold, and miserable. We always did it in the wintertime because the mosquitos were gone, the ground was frozen, and the leaves were fallen. It seemed like we always ran out of wood when it was the coldest and darkest time of winter. That meant it was time to put an axe and chainsaw in the back of the old Studebaker pickup and go into the woods to get a load of fresh cut birch and spruce.
Four wheel drive was not very common in the mid-fifties, so Dad always got stuck a few times before getting to the wood cutting area. After finally arriving he would start the chainsaw. It was a long forgotten brand, Tree Farmer, and unfortunately, like most chainsaws of the time—a cantankerous beast. He had to fight it for a time to get it running. Then he felled a few trees. As there was nothing for me to do at first, I could only stand around and freeze.
I used a National Guard re-enlistment bonus to buy a new Stihl chainsaw, a peavey, an axe, and a splitting maul. My friends in the National Guard gave me a hard time. They had heard of people re-enlisting to get money to buy a new car but never a new chainsaw.
Modern insulated boots and gloves were unknown. We wore leather or rubber boots and two pairs of socks. Our feet became damp, and in a short while froze, as the leather cracked, letting in moisture. Neoprene overshoes were very appreciated when they became more common.
We wore monkey face gloves that quickly became wet. These were yellow work gloves common to the time. They had a fuzzy exterior giving them their name. Monkey faces were not like the nice, insulated, moisture proof gloves of today. After my hands and feet were sufficiently numb Dad had enough wood cut so I could begin loading the pickup or stacking limbs. Sometimes if it was dry enough we would burn the limbs. A fire helped keep faces and bodies warm but really didn’t do much for frozen feet.
After we loaded the pickup we drove back to the house. It usually didn’t get stuck returning because of the weight in the back. As much as I hated cutting firewood I still look back fondly at the uninterrupted company I had with Dad. He told me extensive stories about his childhood in north-eastern Washington state in the Depression Era and stories about his father in Missouri at the turn of the 20th century. It was the kind of opportunity that is not fully appreciated until many years have passed.
Later, the wood had to be split and stacked. Of course, it was my job to carry it in and load the wood box. Dad and I both swore Mom burned wood as fast as she could without concern for the people who had to cut it. Our perception was that she would pack the stove full to the top, open up the draft, and let the fire roar! We had the idea her sole purpose in life was to keep us busy cutting wood.
It was a happy day when Dad bought a used coal furnace and installed it in the basement of the house. Shoveling coal was nothing compared to cutting wood. I was grateful and thought I would never have to cut firewood again.
In 1977, about 20 years later, my wife Nancy and I built our house on Fairview Loop Road. Included in the house was a fireplace to offset the cost of electric heat. We fed it with wood left over from building the house. Pretty to look at, lovely to behold, but if it wasn’t burning it sure could be cold. I quickly realized what a mistake the fireplace was and replaced it with a wood stove. I know, I know, I should have remembered what wood cutting and burning was like, but time does tend to blur one’s memory and hard times become the good old days.
I used a National Guard re-enlistment bonus to buy a new Stihl chainsaw, a peavey, an axe, and a splitting maul. My friends in the National Guard gave me a hard time. They had heard of people re-enlisting to get money to buy a new car but never a new chainsaw. It took a couple of years for them to forget it and pick on someone else.
I owned a tractor, making it easier to drag logs from the woods into the yard and cut them into lengths. Fortune smiled on me when I found a 20 foot logging chain lying in the middle of the road; just what I needed to complete the necessary equipment. Surely it was a sign from heaven that my decision to burn wood was correct. Now I was ready to defray the cost of expensive electric heat. The fact that the cost of all the equipment could have paid for electric heat for many years was lost on me.
Because it was supplemental heat I didn’t have to cut wood when it was extremely cold making things a little better. Still it had to be cut, split, stacked and carried into the house. Then the ashes had to be carried out. It took about six cords of wood a year to heat the house. It is true what they say, when burning wood one warms himself twice, once when cutting it and again when burning it.
After a very short time it seemed I spent all my spare time adding to the woodpile. After a long day of making wood, a big woodpile looks impressive, giving one a feeling of accomplishment. In fact, I felt such pride in my huge woodpile that I hated to burn any of it clearly negating the value of my wood cutting effort.
My neighbor also burned wood. His problem was he didn’t have any trees on his property. He did, however, own an old 1946 D-4 Caterpillar bulldozer. We decided to work together. We cut wood on my place and used his Caterpillar to pull the logs up to the house. We divided the wood fifty-fifty. In one day we pulled enough logs up to the house to last us both through the winter. It’s definitely easier and more enjoyable if two people are working together.
Finally, in the fall of 1990, natural gas was piped into the neighborhood. What a thrill. We signed on immediately and had a gas furnace installed. At the time I had nearly fifteen cords of seasoned wood all split and stacked. I sold off ten cords and used the money to help pay for the gas installation, keeping five cords just in case we ever needed the wood stove in an emergency.
In the summer of 1994 it became clear the wood stove was an anachronism. I sold it at a garage sale for three hundred dollars and as an extra bonus gave the lucky new owner my old splitting wedge. Nearly thirty years of burning wood came to a close.
Now there is just a big open space where the stove used to be. The fireplace hole is closed over and the remainder of the wood pile is rotting away. In spite of all the misery that comes with burning wood, I remember the good times working with my dad and my good neighbors. But, I am very thankful for natural gas. Now when it’s cold, I just turn up the thermostat and let the gas company send me a bill. No more Hack! Pack! Crack! Stack!
by Roger Lincoln