Firewood presented its challenges to siblings

Published 9:24 am Saturday, April 14, 2012

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

At the edge of our back yard is a shed. One end is open to the yard and the other has a small room for storage.

This is our woodshed.

On one side of the open area is strip wood cut into lengths appropriate for our cook stove. The other end has short lengths of split oak cut into the proper size for our freestanding, tin space heaters. The heaters are actually thin gauge steel, but they’re called tin. They’re blue.

Stove wood comes from strips hauled to our house from Fisher’s Mill, just down the road about a mile toward Courtland. I’ve made that trip many times with my father. The long strips are stacked in the yard close by the shed, awaiting the saw.

The saw is a no safety device, bare bladed framework of saw table, spindle and blade, driven by a belt from our tractor.

I don’t know how the wood was cut before the tractor. I’m betting there was a lot of intensive labor involved; there usually is on the farm.

This job is usually a three-person operation. One worker gathers up a small bundle (five or six strips), and carries one end to my brother, who places the long bundle on the saw table.

The worker stands by and supports the long end of the strips to stabilize the operation. My brother places the strips so that about 13 to 14 inches of wood is beyond the cutting point.

He then pushes the saw table with the strips forward against the bare saw blade. Another worker stands on the other side of the blade and receives the cut wood and tosses it back under the shed. Arms, hands and fingers work very close to that open blade.

Heater wood is done about the same way. Larger logs of split oak or small limbs are cut to about 10-inch lengths. Strips are usually pine — the most abundant and most used tree species in our area. Heater wood is usually a hardwood. It burns cleaner and lasts longer than pine.

Our heaters and cook stove have a controllable circular air vent on the front of the firebox and a damper built into the exhaust flue to control the rate of burn (temperature). The long round exhaust flues tell the tale of using pine. Most of the pipe joints seep dark colored pine tar, a residual in smoke, turned to liquid as it cools.

Pine tar accumulates in the house chimneys also. There’s great danger of such accumulation of tar and rosins to catch fire; many house fires are the result of chimney fires.

My father, in the winter, when it’s raining, intentionally builds a hot fire in the chimney to “burn it out” as a control measure. My mother and father suffered a house fire and lost everything early in their marriage. Prevention is high on their list.

It falls to me and my siblings to carry (tote) firewood from the shed to the kitchen or back porch. My family uses a lot of firewood, mostly to feed the cook stove. We have a large family and meals three times a day mean many trips to the woodshed. It’s not a pleasant task and I avoid it until someone yells at me.

I learn that I can hold one stick of wood in one hand, place a lot of sticks on that arm and stanchion created by the held stick.

I encircle the load with my other arm and waddle my way to the house, and unceremoniously dump the load on the porch or in the kitchen. I also learn the art of removing the inevitable splinters that come from using bare arms to carry the wood.

Removing the pinesap from my skin is a talent unlearned.

For the heaters, it’s either “green” or dry wood.

Ours is mostly dry, having gotten that way from being left a long time under the shed or in an outside area or being cut from dead trees that have dried out over time.

Our house has no insulation. Floor boards are cold in winter, and what heat accumulates in the house is quickly gone with a strong north wind. Long underwear is the winter norm.

I can adjust the digital thermostat for our computer-controlled air conditioning and heating system and it will maintain the house temperature within a degree of that selected, summer or winter. While I enjoy the aesthetics of a campfire or chimenea [a free-standing front-loading fireplace or oven], I do not miss “toting” firewood.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at