Heating the Old Fashioned Way

Minnesota couple warm up to vintage cast iron stoves

| March 2006

Time was, cast iron stoves were admired chiefly for the heat they generated. Today, though, collectors prize them for their beauty and charm. For Bill McCann, Eyota, Minn., it was a case of love at first sight. Introduced to the hobby while visiting a collector who had more than 40 stoves, Bill was instantly hooked. "We were there for five hours," he recalls. "I just got so tied up in it. I couldn't believe the workmanship, the craftsmanship and artistry."

Since then, Bill and his girlfriend, Chrissy Nord, have built their own collection of stoves, many of which they've restored. "It's turned into quite a passion," Bill marvels.

The pace of global warming would accelerate dramatically if Bill were to use all of his stoves. In fact, he regularly fires up just two, including one in the house (a Garland 25 converted to propane, making it a 30,000 BTU heater), and another (a Round Oak) in his shop, where it keeps 1,900 square feet of space toasty. Bill and Chrissy focus on two primary types of stoves: heaters and base-burners.

Heaters, what Bill refers to as "the common man's stove," are typically simple, utilitarian units with little ornamentation. Many featured foot rings (or "foot warmers") where you could prop your feet to warm them. Heaters burned coal, or with a grate added, wood.

Baseburners, in their day, owned only by the most affluent, were designed to be functional and showy, allowing view of the fire through mica windows on three sides. They fairly sparkled with nickel ornamentation and elaborate finials (the top crown piece) in brass, copper or nickel. Baseburners were designed to burn coal. If you burn wood in them, you chance breaking the mica windows. And if you're thinking of converting a stove to gas, Bill says, baseburners are your best choice.

Cast iron stoves were manufactured by dozens of companies, including Kalamazoo, Favorite, Michigan Stove Co. and Jewel. The Round Oak stove line, manufactured by P.D. Beckwith, Dowagiac, Mich., is Bill's favorite. "They didn't make the fanciest baseburners," he says, "but they're by far one of the strongest companies ever. They're the best-made stoves, and burn really well. Sixty percent of my stoves are Round Oaks. You're going to find Round Oak before you find any others."