Cooking on the Family Farm: Using a Wood-Burning Stove

An Iowa woman remembers her mother preparing meals on the family farm using a wood-burning stove, and recounts what it was like to live without electricity

Old-fashioned Stove

Cooking appliances have changed drastically over the decades.

Lee Prince/Fotolia

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Older people talk about the good old days on the family farm. We did have some good times, even though we went through the Depression.

My mother cooked on a wood-burning stove. It was our duty to keep the wood box beside the stove filled.

There was a reservoir on the side of the range for water. The range kept the water hot and we could use it to wash dishes in the dishpan on a table. No sink, no dishwasher, no electricity. My mother ironed with flat irons. We kept them on the back of the stove to stay hot. When we went to iron, we fastened a handle on the iron. In the winter, when it was cold and we slept upstairs with no heat, we would wrap the iron in heavy towels and take them to bed with us to keep our feet warm. Sometimes we would fill a hot water bottle and use it to keep warm.

The rest of the house was heated by a potbellied stove. Some burned wood and some coal My father would bank the fire in the heater with wood to last through the night. In the morning there would be enough coals left to restart the fire. The room would soon be warm.

The wood-burning stove had to be started each morning. You can imagine how hot the stove would be to cook on in the hot summer time. Later on Mother had a kerosene stove to use in the summer.

We had no refrigerator or piped-in water. If you were lucky, you might have a pitcher pump inside to pump in water from the well or from the cistern that caught rain water. It would make your hair soft when you washed your hair in the rain water. Otherwise you would carry buckets of water into the house from the well.

At night we used kerosene lamps to read or sew by. We cleaned the chimney each day and kept the lamps filled.

My mother had to bake bread several times a week. She would make some of the dough into cinnamon rolls. We also churned our own butter. Sometimes that was my job.

We had a big garden and canned all our fruits and vegetables for winter use. Mom would can beef, sausage and cure and smoke our own ham and bacon in the winter. It was not unusual for people to can 1000 quarts of food. We might not have had a lot of money, but we had plenty to eat.

Mildred Swinford
Keokuk, Iowa

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.