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Breakfast, Coal Oil and Corn Cobs

by James N. Boblenz

Tags: breakfast, simpler time, coal oil, James N. Boblenz,

Shortly after reading Leslie McManus’ column in the March 2009 issue of Farm Collector regarding life in a simpler time, I got to thinking about how it was when I was growing up.

In my opinion, we lived in the best of times. As she describes, times may have been simpler, but they certainly were not easier.

We lived on a 60-acre farm that had no electricity until 1945, when the REA finally put a power line near the house. Until that time, we pumped water by hand for the house and for the livestock. We had a hand-dug cistern at the back of the house where rainwater collected for Mom to do the laundry and such. Inside, we used coal oil lamps. We heated the house with hand-cut firewood, but we used lump coal to bank the fire at night and to fire the kitchen stove. My goodness, our children and our grandchildren have never even seen lump coal. But back to breakfast.

Corn cobs in a bucket   
Jan-Erik Finnberg,
Before electric and gas stoves, corn cobs (along with newspaper and coal) were used as fire fodder in cook stoves.

Before Mom could prepare breakfast, she had to get out of bed and go to the kitchen to get a fire going in the old farm cook stove. It was not unlike cook stoves most farm families had. It was kind of pretty in its own way, green enamel with white borders and trimmed with chrome. At one end was the firebox with two lids. Next came the oven, which also had a couple of lids. At the far end was a water reservoir, which held enough water to do dishes. A large “warming oven” was at the back of the stove to keep pies and such warm at mealtime.

To start the fire, Mom first underlaid a wadded-up newspaper at the bottom, then she added a few corn cobs to the nest, then added the smallest pieces of coal she could find in the bucket. Next, she poured on a little coal oil (where did that name come from I wonder?), then struck a long wooden match and hoped she had put on enough coal oil to start the fire under the cobs. Then she would head back to the bedroom to get dressed, get Dad up, then the rest of us.

When the stove finally got warm enough, she would get out her cast iron skillet to fry fat side meat, sausage or bacon. When that was done, she would put on the eggs to finish breakfast. Sometimes she varied the menu with mush, cream of wheat, oatmeal and the like.

My job in those early years was to bring in the “fixins” for the fire. Our coal bin was a three-sided box with an open top. Each night I went to the bin and filled the coal buckets with coal. We had two: one for big lumps and one for smaller pieces. I always put a pile of little pieces on top to make it handy for Mom to get them out to start the morning fire. When it rained, I got especially dirty from the wet, slick coal. When it snowed, I had to dig the wet, frozen lumps of coal out to fill the bucket. Then Mom raised the roof if I got coal drippings on her floor.

Dad kept our coal oil in a large drum mounted on a wood structure and blocked so it did not roll. It was my job to fill the oilcan too. This was a little gallon container with a larger hole in the top for filling and a small spigot from which to pour. It had a screw-on lid at each hole. And it had a nice little wire bail handle to make carrying easier. Never, ever lose one of the caps, though. Once I did and I searched for hours to find it. Mom insisted the caps be in place so that if the can got knocked over, coal oil would not spill all over the kitchen floor.

I also had to find clean, dry corn cobs to fill that bucket. Since we shelled corn for the chickens, we usually had plenty of cobs around for just the stove. One never wanted to fire up dirty cobs. They would really smell up a house. To Mom, the cobs were most important. If they were not clean or if there were not enough in the box, back outside I would go until the collection suited her.

When I got old enough to go to school, Mom trained me so I would know my name to tell the teacher. It was James, not Jim or Jimmy or Jamie. No sir. Not Jim but James Bo’ blenz. She named me James and that was my name all through my 12 years of school.

But up until that time, to borrow a phrase from Captain Stubby, I frequently answered to “Get More Cobs.”