John Harrigan: Kitchens and wood for two seasons and firing up the outdoor furnace

JOHN HARRIGAN August 31. 2013 8:39PM

Two days on ATVs recently reaffirmed my take that the reason we bought the machines was not for recreation, but for farm work where a big tractor should not or could not go - like using the winch to drag blowdowns out to where they can be cut up for winter or summer use, or to fix fence.

In a recent edition of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom tabloid, I found three classified ads for ATVs with "wenches." I already have an ATV with both, I was tempted to reply, and either one can kill you.

Still, we had a great ride, staying over at Pittsburg's Tall Timbers Lodge and Cabins and fortifying ourselves at the acclaimed Rainbow Grille, and then taking off on an equally circuitous trail home.

And during two days of dodging thunderstorm showers, or them dodging us, we almost made it home before the inevitable occurred.

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Back in the day, the old-timers say, and I'm not one of them yet, there was winter wood and summer wood, and there were winter and summer kitchens.

The summer kitchens typically were in the ell off the main house, featuring wide doors that could be thrown out to let the wind blow through and were on the way to the two-holer (sometimes three, if the family was large and mostly female) and the barn.

This kind of thing is rarely talked or written about today and is being lost by the demise of older people and the fastidiousness of the times. (That would be the part about the three-holers.)

Summer wood was bucked up for the summer kitchen. This was mostly poplar, which we've always called popple.

It is a light wood in between softwood (fir, spruce, pine, cedar) and hard wood (maple, birch, beech, oak). It tended to burn fast and hot, so that the cooks and kitchen-keepers could cook quickly, enabling the haying crews to eat and get out of the kitchen before the heat killed them deader than a twice-pounded thumb.

In the winter, hardwood - in my climes, maple, beech and birch, and Down Below including oak and a host of incomprehensible species - would keep the household warm, more or less, via a fireplace (famed for being inefficient) and later by Ben Franklin's loose cast-iron stoves and later the first cellar (if not stellar) cast-iron furnaces.

Well do I remember being shown the first such basement furnace in the Colebrook territory, installed by South Hill farmer Chet Noyes, of Chet Noyes Road fame (a key link in the North Country's fledgling ATV system). It was a behemoth, with a gaping maw, and it was all about hot air straight up through two huge elegant furnace grates, function and beauty personified.

This was before any such thing as baseboard heat. This later alternative involved forced hot water baseboard heat, to me still the best way to convert wood to heat, except for the latest radiant heat system, meaning hot-water coils under the floors. Unfortunately, or fortunately because I so love the place, I live in an 1850 (or so) farmhouse ill-suited for retrofitting for radiant heat.

My house has the next best thing, an oil-fired hot-water baseboard system, but I'm too brain-dead, regionally independent or cheap, surrounded by a horizon suffused with wood, to use oil and send my dollars overseas.

So I'm forced, alas, to resort to an outdoor wood-fired furnace, which feeds hot water to that same baseboard system. I call it 40-year-old solar heat. Hey, it plays in Podunk.

It's an outdoor furnace that I have to load, in the dead of the coldest winter, three times a day; big deal, three to five minutes to load (to make this sound even remotely sensible, every eight hours, hence 10 at night, 6 in the morning, and 2 in the afternoon. Or take your eight-hour pick.) It's the graveyard shift of wood-burning. In most winter months, it's twice a day - 7 in the morning, 7 at night. Okay, these are pretty hefty three-foot pieces of hardwood I'm tossing in. A three-foot piece of pretty-big yellow birch can weigh up to 70 pounds. But the wood did not have to be split or otherwise handled because I always have three years' worth of piles ahead.

But show me a better way if you've got the room for three years' worth of logs, and the ability to draw them up, cut and toss in.

This kind of thing is not for everybody. I have no near neighbors who'd complain when the furnace fires up. And I have plenty of room in the back barnyard to store three or four years' worth of logs to dry and be ready to go, to avoid splitting and handling.

And there is the key about an outdoor furnace - not only that you can avoid all the mess and bark and dust and insects of storing and using indoor wood, but that you can also attain the Holy Grail of handling wood - from the normal seven touches down to three.

John Harrigan's address: P.O. Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576, or

John Harrigan

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