March 2, 2020

FTV: Wood Stories

 When one is young, it is sometimes hard to fathom why your parents work so hard.  We always had a perfectly good coal or oil furnace in the houses we lived in, yet my father was obsessed with cutting firewood.  Of course, one needed a fireplace or a wood stove of some sort to warrant the need for firewood. Building fireplaces and chimneys was another one of those things dad liked to do that made me scratch my head.  When we visited my grandparents, I never quite made the connection between my parents growing up in homes with wood cook stoves and this never ending quest for wood. When we built the first iteration of our camp on the Silver River, the only heat source in this one room affair was, of course, a cast iron wood stove.  We did have a small gas cook stove and range, but without any kind of a water heater, we had to burn a lot of bottled gas to heat water for doing the dishes. During the colder weather, there would always be a fire in the wood stove so our hot water production switched to the two big kettles heating on the top. One of my first regular camp jobs was priming the pitcher pump by the sink and topping off the water kettles.  Even when we retreated to The Swamp for vacations, we were in the wood business. 

     We never owned a piece of property to serve as a woodlot.  Dad would simply find out where the local loggers were cutting hardwood and give the landowner a call.  If they were okay with us taking the tops left behind after logging, we would show up when they weren’t working and get busy.  Dad would saw and brother Ron and I would load the pick-up. If there was snow on the ground, we would use a toboggan with a wood crib on board to make runs back and forth. We pulled the load by hand at first and later with our trusty Ski-Doo.  In other seasons, we would get the truck as close to the cutting as possible and then pass the wood via a two man ‘bucket line’. If we were too far to hand the wood down the line, we would simply toss it as far as we had to and then start loading.

     It did not matter what plans we had made for the day:  if there was wood available and dad wasn’t at work, we were making wood.  When we had enough wood for our own needs, dad always seemed to find someone else in need.  We would deliver it cut and split for the princely sum of $10 per pick-up truck load (note: NOT per tier), about what roadside vendors charge for three small bundles of campfire wood these days!  By the time I got out of college, the amount of wood we had cut, hauled, and delivered certainly would have made a pile as high as Mount Arvon. My dad’s usual ploy was to remind me that the drumset they purchased for me in seventh grade needed to be paid for.  When I tell this to other drummers how I got my set, they usually say, “I had to mow lawns (or bag groceries, etc) to pay for my own drums.” My reply is always the same: “Oh, my parents paid for mine up front, but I am pretty sure I helped with enough wood to pay for five or six drum kits.”

     I vowed to never own a home with a fireplace.  When I bought my first small house in Ontonagon, it was electric everything, including the heat.  The retired electrician who built the home installed heat grids in the ceiling, which I had never heard of before.  The first winter I lived there, I found out why this is more common in southern locales. The first thing that caught my attention was the monthly electric bill.  Secondly, without losing my temper, I was becoming a hot head. With the thermostats in each room located about halfway between the ceiling and floor, the ceiling grid heat kept the top half of rooms warm but the floors were always cold, especially under the table.  During the coldest weather my head always felt hot and my feet were always cold. Even if I could have hovered horizontally in the middle of the room, one side of me would have still felt too hot and the other side too cold due to the heat radiating from above.     

    Before the ink on the deed was dry, the folks already had concerns about the cost of heating this all electric house.  Anticipating my future electric bills, dad’s first response should not have been a surprise: “Remember that one upright wood stove we tried at camp?  It was too hot for the original size of the camp and it is just taking up room in the camp woodshed. If we build a chimney and put that stove in your basement, it should keep the floors warm and save you a lot of electricity.”  Perhaps my dad only encouraged me to buy an all electric house so he could build another chimney. The fall of my first year in the house, chimney building commenced.    

     By the time it started to snow, dad had built the chimney, installed the old beast of a stove from camp, and made sure I hauled a couple of cords of seasoned wood from camp.  My old landlord Bob Mazurek had a small Homelite chainsaw which he sold me so when I found a closer source of wood the next summer, I would be ready to roll. The beast stove worked like a charm but with the basement only extending under half of the house (measuring only 26 X 26 feet), that space could actually get uncomfortably warm even in the coldest weather.  The steps to the basement open into the unheated garage, so there was no way to vent some of the excess heat to the upstairs where it was needed. It certainly kept the pizza warm when we held a little musical Christmas jam in the basement that December. My plan for the next winter was to put a floor grate on either side of the house to allow the heat to circulate upstairs.  Once again, dad was a step ahead of me.  

     On one of his work trips through Ontonagon and Gogebic Counties, dad discussed my heating problem with a local heating contractor.  He called me and asked how I felt about putting in a forced air furnace in place of the old beast wood stove. It sounded like a great idea to me, even after dad mentioned that he was talking about a wood burning furnace with ductwork to distribute the heat more evenly than my original floor grate idea.  Somehow my previous ‘no burning wood’ vow had gotten lost in the shuffle.

    The contractor pointed out that the furnace he had just installed was capable of heating a much larger home than my current one bedroom bachelor pad.  In the year before we married or even knew if we would be staying in Ontonagon, my future wife and I had discussed adding on to the house at some point in time.  Knowing we already had a furnace that could heat a larger house was a plus on the house expansion front. We rented the house to a retired couple the first year we were married and living in Marquette.  I tried to warn him what I had learned about heating the house with wood the first year with the new furnace: Less is better. More trips to put wood in the furnace gave better results than filling the firebox which inevitably led to overheating the small living area.    

     Every rent check that arrived during that winter was accompanied by a note from the renter.  Most were complaints about how they were having to open the doors to cool the place down in the dead of winter.  Returning to Ontonagon the next year, we found it took half the amount of wood to heat the house than our renters had used.  We just made it a habit to put less wood into the firebox (which meant more trips downstairs). Even when we employed our best wood conserving practices, we still managed to raise the temperature from ‘comfortable’ to ‘sauna-like’ from time to time.  The overheating problem went away when we finally doubled the size of our living quarters by building an addition over the unheated garage space.

     The other wood project we tackled in the fall of 1981(the second year after we returned to Ontonagon) was to build a woodshed.  Even though we had a winter’s worth of seasoned wood piled near the garage, the renter had complained that it would be hard for him to dig it out of the snow.  He took my suggestion and hired someone to haul it down into the basement (which was no small feat in that it took up a good share of our small, 26 X 26 foot lower level).  Being somewhat of a diminutive person, he called me late one night with a new complaint: “They piled the wood so high I can’t reach the top of the pile.” I suggested he call his wood piler back to lower the unreachable stacks, reminding him that it would be a four hour round trip for me to come and solve his mile high wood problem.  That call started a chain of events that culminated in another family building project involving wood. If it involved wood and building, all I had to do was mention what project I was thinking about doing and dad started gathering supplies. The man loved to build things.  

     On the appointed day, the folks showed up with a bunch of used wood that they had rescued from our camp boathouse that had succumbed to the combined pressures of frost heave and river ice.  Always one to recycle, I marveled that this would be the third use for this lumber (and some bricks) we had originally salvaged after the razing of the old Picqua mill in Marquette. Prior to the construction of the new Marquette Senior High building in 1963-64, the contractor offered a brief amount of time for anyone to salvage whatever they could haul away from the old mill site.  The bricks we collected were used to make a fireplace in the basement of our Norway Avenue house and most of the lumber went into the camp boathouse. When the doomed boathouse was disassembled, the lumber was stacked for future use.  

     Riding on top of the wood in his truck were a couple of dozen cedar poles harvested from the swampy backlot at camp.  Dad showed me where he wanted the cement blocks embedded to support the framework and set about cutting and notching the cedar poles.  Carpentry by chainsaw was another new concept for me. With the pole frame in place, the recycled lumber was repurposed for the roof trusses, flooring, walls, and roof planking.  We even had enough lumber left over to construct a small tool shed at the end of the woodshed. After ‘only’ 40 years, the woodshed flooring is giving way so the next recycled wood project will start when I remove the old  flooring. When we replace the old deck boards, they will then become the new woodshed floor (yes, just like dad would have done it).

     It takes about ten tier of wood to fill the woodshed and I have been doing this for at least 40 years.  In the early days, it was easy to get ten full cords of long sticks delivered to my backyard. My seasonal routine was to block and split enough wood for one winter and get it piled to dry.  With the coming winter taken care of, the rest of the pile could be blocked and split in reserve until the next spring. When the next season’s wood was transferred into the woodshed, a new load would appear in the backyard and the two year cycle would start again.  It seemed that the wood not burned one winter, when added to what was left from the last full stick load, was enough to fill the shed and get us through another winter. A couple of times we ran short and there isn’t any solution that helps one find a couple of spare cords of wood laying around when one runs out in March.  There is always green wood, but burning wood with a lot of moisture content is not good for the furnace or the chimney.

     After a number of years, finding full length logs to cut became a problem, so I found a source of ready split wood that could be delivered early each summer.  All I had to do was get it under cover and let mother nature do her thing to get it dried out by the burning season. We had the good fortune of finding another source when our original cut/split/deliver jobber stopped doing business.  I have never minded cranking up the saw and cutting my own wood, but it didn’t take much to get used to having it delivered woodshed ready. The annual ritual of filling the woodshed doesn’t seem like work any more – recreational wood piling makes me sound a lot like my dad.

     After all of these years of chasing fuel for the furnace, I have to admit that I actually like piling wood.  In my three summers working as a dishwasher, there was always a certain amount of satisfaction derived from clearing the dirty dishes from one side of the Hobart machine and ending up with stacks of clean dishes at the other end.  A wood pile in the yard can seem daunting, but watching it disappear into the woodshed leaves me with that same satisfied feeling. So much for my earlier vow to never have a fireplace or wood stove! At times I think I would like to add a sunroom addition on the house just so we could have a small Franklin stove to brighten up those gray winter days.  If my dad was still with us, I know what he would say!

Top Piece Video: Okay, I really like the Eddie Floyd version, but try and find a good looking video of it! Amii Stewart’s is certainly colorful . . . and another reminder why disco was fun . . . but did not have the lasting power of good old rock, roll, and soul! (okay, my opinion, don’t write nasty posts).