All my life, I've enjoyed a cozy, warm home in the winter. When you grow up in Michigan, you appreciate that warmth after spending time outdoors in the cold and snow! Yes, all my life, I've enjoyed that warmth. And all my life, I've never thought too much about where that warmth came from. In my home in the suburbs of Detroit, we simply turned a dial and pushed a few buttons, and warmth was there.
That is no longer true for me. I’m living in southwestern Wisconsin on my son Bryan’s new farm. Well, actually, it’s an old farm … but it’s new to us! We moved up here in June … so this is our first “rural winter.” We still go back and forth between the farm and the suburbs fairly often, so we've had to be creative with our heating plans.
This summer, my husband got a new furnace for the 100-year-old farmhouse. When we bought the place, there were oil and coal burners still sitting in the basement, though they were no longer in use. We asked that they be removed prior to our arrival ... no small task, but we didn't want them there!
By the time we moved in, only the old oil storage tank remained, with its filling pipe poking through the wall to the outside. (We have since had the tank removed.)
The new furnace is connected to our main source of heat: an outdoor wood-burning furnace. We use the wood furnace for heat beginning in November, when it is consistently too cold to go without a full-time source of heat.
There is also a lovely wood stove in the living room, which we can use in late autumn and early spring, and when the outdoor temperatures are really frigid, as they were a week ago, and will be again this coming week. The drafty old farmhouse sits atop a high ridge, and we get impressive winds up here. I like to call them our “Montana zephyrs!” But the woodstove keeps the main floor nice and toasty.
When we take a couple of days to travel, the propane-fueled furnace is set to “backup” function. Should the fire in the outdoor furnace go out, the temperature in the house will drop to our set point (we keep it low, about 60 degrees), at which point the propane burner will kick in. It’s a comforting thing to know, so we don’t worry about catastrophic things like frozen and burst water pipes.
Bryan has made a wonderful friend up here, a young man his age named Nate, who is from a neighboring farm. When we travelled to Illinois to be with family over Thanksgiving, Nate volunteered to drive the 3/4 mile from his house to ours each day in order to stoke the outdoor wood furnace. This, by the way, is one of the things that I love most about rural living as opposed to life in the super-suburbs … the way “community” happens. Folks reach out to one another here, and take care of one another. That happens amongst friends in the suburbs, but here it seems to happen more often and as a way of living, even with people you don’t know. It’s a beautiful thing.
I think farmers know they have to rely upon their neighbors and their community for help in times of need, whether it’s to borrow a trailer, capture escaped livestock, repair damage after a storm, assist with heavy-lifting-tasks, or take over time-sensitive jobs during times of illness or other crisis. People expect to “jump in and help” a neighbor-in-need, and are ready and willing to do so when asked. At least that’s been our experience here.
A couple of times, we've had the fire in the outdoor furnace die down to just a few embers because we didn't think we needed to stoke it. Each time it's been during the overnight hours. The house temperature drops into the 60s, and we can tell the difference. So we toss in a couple armloads of kindling ... we like to use the 100-year-old lathe that we pulled out of one of the upstairs bedrooms when we took down a plaster wall … the stuff is so dry, it burns like paper!
We let that ignite in the remaining embers, then we throw on some boards from old, broken-down wood pallets that were left in the old garage where we store our firewood, and finally we toss on the logs. It takes about half an hour of “babysitting” the furnace to make sure we're up and running, but we watch the house temperature rise back up into the low 70s, and we think it’s a good trade.
I have a new appreciation and understanding of the phrase, “keeping the home fires burning!”
From our family here at Farm on the Hill to yours … wishes for a warm and Happy New Year!