Stoker Coal and Firewood: The Black Diamonds of Winter

Dale Jensen remembers an octopus furnace that had an insatiable appetite for coal during winters on the farm.

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Feeding the furnace with stoker coal.

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Spring green. Summer fun. Autumn color. Perennially we praise the attributes of three seasons. Winter unfortunately rarely receives our accolades. Multiple snowfalls, ice and air temperatures (formerly just cold but now wind-chilled) are scourges to most.

Today, we prepare for winter on the farm by simply replacing a furnace filter and perhaps adding extra insulation. Once winter arrives, indoor comfort requires nothing more than manipulating a dial, switch or keypad on a wall-mounted thermostat. No thought is given to ensuring an adequate supply of combustibles to provide heat. We signal a mechanical system to warm the house and it is done. The farmhouse I grew up in did not have this modern convenience. We had a furnace that required daily replenishment of the fuel supply. Our fuels were firewood and stoker coal, the black diamonds of winter.

Winter on the farm

A dust-crowned rotary switch clicked the barn hallway into absolute blackness. Moments before, Trixie, our brown-and-white terrier, responded to the evening summons to "go to bed." Unseen around a corner, she curled in her loose hay nest at the base of the hay chute before darkness filled the barn's interior. Canine, swine, bovines and poultry were now fed, watered and sheltered against another frigid night. Both halves of the barn Dutch door swung closed, the metal door latch pronouncing chores, and the workday, finished. A short walk to the west end of the barn brought the farm house into view. Only the kitchen was lit. Supper, warm and nourishing, waited inside.

Between house and barn a solitary pole light illuminated the farmyard. The winter blanket covering the yard sparkled like a bed of sugar crystals. This soft appearance belied the actual texture. Frozen snow crystals audibly collapsed beneath every crunching footstep of four-buckle overshoes. A brief pause halfway across the yard turned off the artificial light, allowing a rising moon to bathe the entire farmstead in reflected light and shadows. Warmth was minutes away.

A final task remained before everyone was enclosed by walls of warmth for the night. A short distance from the house, two cold-soaked bushel baskets sat on the tailgate of a tarp-covered blue trailer. Every evening both baskets were filled with firewood, carried to the basement and placed beside a domed cylinder some 6 feet in diameter and height. This silver-painted giant was our furnace. Multiple ducts emanating from the dome gave this style of coal furnace its unique name; it was known as an octopus furnace.

A large hopper about the size of a kitchen stove was connected to the front of the furnace by a metal tube. Opening a rectangular door on top of the hopper revealed two sloping sides that joined underneath a central auger. The auger fed gravel-size pieces of stoker coal through the tube and into the octopus furnace. Just above the auger connection, a heavy iron door accessed the firebox. This door was opened for two reasons: to add wood to the coal fire or remove wood ash and coal clinkers. Ash and clinkers were shoveled into the bushel baskets to be scattered on the driveway. Empty baskets then resumed their tailgate cold-soak until evening.

The coal supply for the hopper was stored a few feet away in a coal bin located in the northwest corner of the basement. A rectangular basement window near the top of the bin made filling it from the outside a simple task.

Two or three times a year we took our Ford pickup to the coal yard in a nearby town and brought home a load of coal, about a ton each time. Back home, dad backed the pickup along the north side of the house until the tailgate was even with the edge of the window. An ordinary piece of corrugated tin roofing became the coal chute. The bottom was bowed until it fit through the window opening and the top was tied in a U shape and wired to the pickup. Unloading a ton of coal one scoop shovel full at a time took quite a while. Sweeping the truck bed clean of remaining bits of coal and dust completed the task. If it burned, it went in the bin.

Shoveling filled the bin. Shoveling emptied it. Once or twice during the day and just before bedtime, bin coal refilled the hopper. Minutes after the hopper door was closed for the night, toggle switches on three levels clicked the basement, kitchen, living room and staircase into darkness until only moonlight remained.

Hopper cars of Virginia and Illinois coal are no longer spotted on that nearby rail siding. The coal yard and tracks are decades gone. Stoker coal furnaces are now a rarity. Just as dinosaurs disappeared due to environmental changes, the octopus furnace is also dinosaur. A dark circle on the basement floor is the only reminder of the silver giant that warmed our farmhouse for decades.

The coal furnace system is gone but a memory remains of a winter message it transmitted. It signaled when dad came in the house. One length of ductwork served as a drying platform for cold, wet gloves and mittens. Dad also kept an extra pair of work shoes warming there as well. Even if we did not hear the door open, there was no mistaking the double thump reverberating through the ductwork when two cold-stiffened shoes began heat soaking during those black diamond days and nights of winter. FC 

Dale Jensen grew up on a small grain and livestock farm in central Iowa in the 1950s and '60s. Retired from the U.S. Air Force, he now lives and works in Springfield, Ill. Contact him by e-mail at wdjensen@yahoo.com