Childhood Memories of the Family Farm: Wood-burning Stoves

An Oregonian recalls her childhood memories of heating systems on her family farm, including wood-burning stoves

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My childhood memories of our family farm include the wood-burning stoves with their nurturing warmth. Our old house had a baseburner. On cold mornings we would bring our clothes and dress around its comforting potbelly with the isinglass reflecting vigorous flames. As a 5-year-old I remember the midwife holding our new baby sister there on a November evening.

In the new house a basement furnace circulated heat to the upper floors, though I don't remember the upstairs bedrooms being heated. I read a poem once in which the poet gave tribute to her father's early rising to start the fire so there was warmth when the family arose. This unsung task Dad did before he went out to milk and do chores.

Adjacent to the furnace was a coal bin or room with an outside metal opening in which coal deliverers would hoist the coal. Wood was also burned. We had three huge cottonwood trees at the edge of the grove, so huge that it took several of us holding hands to reach around them. One year Dad felt he had to sacrifice one of them for wood. It was a jolt I can still remember.

In the center of the kitchen was the cookstove, with its commodious top accommodating high heat on the front or warming toward the back. There was the reservoir, which warmed rain water for washing dishes. Above were warming ovens, where among other things Mom dried eggshells, which she then crushed and gave to the hens as a calcium supplement. As a child I remember loving to go and stand in the cubby space behind the stove, a place of warmth and privacy for a little girl.

In time we added an oil stove, a white enamel contraption on spindly legs that had three burners and an oven on the left. In the summer this was a welcome option to heating up the cookstove.

My aunt had a small cylindrical oil heater that added area heat. In later days it was an antique object on which she placed a plant.

At our country one-room school a huge stove surrounded by a circular metal shield filled the back part of the room. The teacher, who earned $25 a month, had the duty of getting there early to start the stove and keep it fed during the day. There was a flat surface on top, where at noon we heated hot dishes that our mothers took turns sending. My mom made a macaroni dish in tomato sauce that I dearly loved.

My first experience with an electric stove was graphic. We visited my modern cousin Edith in town, and in inspecting her new stove I naively put my hand on the burner and experienced a quick withdrawal.

My husband tells of his dad heating bricks, wrapping them and putting them in bed by the children's feet at night. We used flannel sheets and huddled under mounds of homemade quilts.

The windows had beautiful Jack Frost sculptures through which we peered on a winter wonderland, beautiful yet harsh as one ventured out to do chores or navigated to school, town or church. If one has warmth and nurturing within, one can weather the storms without.

Bernice Severson
Portland, Oregon


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.