First Things


| February 2001



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Leslie C. McDanielLeslie C. McDaniel

For the average commuter in northeast Kansas, a lined trench coat was more than adequate garb during the past two winters. This winter, however, is an altogether different critter. We've had snow. We've had ice. We've had wind. And we've had cold. This winter, we've hauled the wool coats out of the back of the closet, along with insulated boots and gloves, mufflers, long underwear, stocking hats and literally anything that offered protection against the cold.

As I piled on layer after layer one recent morning, I thought of the rural residents of, say, 100 years ago, and how those folks dealt with the cold. It was an altogether different world.

A century ago, the front door of the average midwestern farm home was literally sealed shut by early December as a barrier against drafts. The parlor stove would be banked each night, yet all who could linger in bed in the morning would, waiting for the one whose job it was to start the fire first thing each day. When bathing became absolutely necessary, it was conducted in a tub placed in front of the kitchen cook stove.

Today, if you're really thrifty, you might turn the thermostat down to the low sixties at bedtime (I don't dare do that: My kids have the welfare agency on speed dial). But think back to a hundred years ago, when the home's only sources of heat were the kitchen cook stove and a parlor stove. Second-floor bedrooms held little if any heat in the dead of winter: going to bed required as much preparation as going outside in that weather. And then there was the privy to contend with...

It was an era when shoveling meant more than the sidewalk to the front door. When a blizzard swept over the land 100 years ago, those who lived in the country cleared their own roads, digging out by hand. The word 'chilblain' has long since passed from common usage, but in the days before waterproof boots and Carhartts, it was a familiar result of exposure to the elements.

Old ways are not necessarily the best ways. Parlor stoves are long on charm, but I have a deep emotional attachment to my furnace. Old wisdom, though, still rings true: Chop your own wood, and it warms you twice.