Century-old antique parlor stoves still serve a purpose
This Floral Oak stove, made in Kansas City roughly 100 years ago, shows the gleam of stove black. "If you paint your stove, it doesn't show the relief," said Glenn Litke. "It dulls the engraving, and the way the detail reflects light."
Most farm collectibles are carefully restored, displayed at an occasional show or parade, then taken to the barn where they're kept under tarps. But the relics Glen Litke restores perform the same vital function today as they did when they were built 100 years ago: Generating heat.
Glen salvages and completely restores antique parlor stoves. At least four are used to heat his family's home in rural Marion County, Kan., a converted loft in a granary, and the farm shop.
"We heat the entire house with wood," he said.
Restore a steel-wheeled tractor, and you have a strong sense of the challenges of fanning 80 years ago. Use a 100-year-old antique parlor stove as your primary heat source, and you are immersed in the rhythms of life in a different era.
"It's kind of like the way Grandpa lived," Glen said. "You have to use a match, paper and kindling to start a fire."
Starting the fire is just the first step.
"There's kind of a trick to it, knowing how to keep a fire, bank a fire," he added. "It's a little bit of an art form. You've got to 'keep the home fires burning'."
Keeping a fire may be an art form, but it's one quickly learned.
"When you wake up cold too many nights in a row," Glenn said with a smile, "you know something's wrong."
Antique parlor stoves, most dating to the turn of the century, were designed in nearly 30 styles. Most collectors concentrate on "Oak" stoves (a style of parlor stove) or base burners. Oak stoves typically feature a cylindrical body, a decorative finial on top, and ornate foot warmers (often resembling logs) protruding from the sides of the stove about a foot off the floor.
Antique parlor stoves are harder to find these days, and pricy.
"Years ago, nobody wanted these stoves," Glenn said. "Sometimes you could buy one for $5; sometimes they just tossed them out. Most of them just hit the junk pile."
Today, he said, stoves turn up at estate sales, auctions, and even flea markets.
"But the best place to find them is in chicken barns, milk barns, and lean-to's," he said.
Restoration of a parlor stove is simple in theory, but labor intensive.
"I take the whole thing apart, sandblast or bead blast every piece of cast iron," Glenn said. "Then I'll do whatever welding is necessary, or get pieces recast. Then, I reassemble the stove, and use cements and sealers so it'll be airtight."
The earlier the stove, the more ornate was its design. The finish played into that as well. Polishing the stove with stove black, for instance, makes ornamental detail stand out and creates a rich, lustrous gleam. But woe to the one who brushes up against the stove, for stove black leaves a wicked stain on clothing.
The gleam from the stove black is heightened by shining accent pieces. Foot warmers, "skirts," finials and other parts were often nickel-plated. Many of the stoves Glenn acquires are so consumed by rust that it's nearly impossible to determine which pieces were originally clad in nickel. He follows his instincts, and works closely with a craftsman who has learned by trial and error how to get the best plating job.
Glenn tries to keep his restorations as authentic as possible, but he does "customize" stoves on occasion. Although some stoves feature mica insets in door panels – acting as windows – the doors on many were solid. On one of his stoves, Glenn modified the panels on one door, covering the openings with sheets of mica, so that the fire within is visible. On another stove – one with a particularly ornate barrel – he gave the barrel a quarter-turn so that the detail would be at the front of the stove, rather than on the side, as designed.
"Eighty percent of the stoves you buy won't have a dome (a decorative top piece)," he said. When he visits antique stores or antique malls, he always asks if they have any old stove finials (he even carries a folded pattern for one dome in his pocket, just in case). Every now and then, he finds one, and adds it to his inventory. Once in a blue moon, there's a happy match.
He bought a Riverside Oak stove – minus the dome – at an antique store. When he got it home, he played the matching game with the domes from his stock. One fit, and when he looked closer, even the markings matched.
"I just doubled the value of that stove," he said.
Then there's the matter of missing or broken parts. Although he downplays his work ("I'm no pro at welding: I'm just a farmer trying to stick things together"), Glenn has a clear understanding of the unique aspects of welding century-old cast iron.
Stove manufacturers, he said, used the poorest quality of cast iron.
"That's why it's so hard to weld," he said. "After all, all you were going to do was make a fire in it."
No amount of welding, though, can replace what's missing. And that's where Glenn's heritage comes into play.
Decades ago, Glenn's grandfather hand-carved wooden forms used to cast parts for farm equipment. The forms – many of which have survived as family heirlooms – are deceptively light; intricately carved. As Glenn contemplated having a new part cast for a particularly ornate stove, he thought of his grandfather's forms. The result? A hand-carved form for a replacement part. Glenn replicated an ornate border by using tiny slices of dowels, cut in half-circles, separated by a segment of toothpick.
"I don't think anybody will be able to tell the difference," he said.
Although he got his first stove in 1986, Glenn's collection really took off in the last two years. But the traffic is all one way.
"I have not sold a single stove," he said. "And so far, no one's talked me out of one." FC