What Goes Around, Comes Around: Wood-Burning Cook Stoves Enjoy Resurgence

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This Majestic cook stove, once owned by my grandmother, is now the heart of my brother’s mountain cabin. 
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Our Monarch cook stove is a top-of-the-line model with an oven temperature gauge and fold-down pan rests on the back board. Both this and the Majestic have water reservoirs (not shown) that fit on one side to heat water. 
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The stow-away pack rat poked his head out the top of this rusty old stove salvaged from a tumble-down mountain cabin. 
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Most wood- and coal-burning kitchen ranges built from the late 1930s on had attractive, easy-to-clean porcelain on all but the cooking surface. 

Many older people who grew up in rural areas lived in homes that had wood-burning cook stoves that were the heart of the kitchen. Since the rural kitchen was the heart of the home, the cook stove had a very special place in the family’s well-being.

It seems quaint today to think that kids of yore, like this author, had the daily chore of bringing in wood for the cook stove. Not only were meals cooked on the stove, but the stove also provided a good share of the home’s heat during cold weather. Since we had our own well, our stove also heated hot water while it was doing its regular job. Drying mittens and providing a comfortable bed for the cat behind it were common extra services.

Then the time arrived when electricity became available almost everywhere, and wood- and coal-burning cook stoves no longer had any value. They were abandoned and replaced by electric ranges and, where natural gas was available, by gas ranges. The old stoves were junk. Those made not long before the transition began were attractive, with smooth porcelain on all surfaces other than the cook top. I remember seeing perfectly good examples discarded in the landfill. It was almost as if they were a symbol of an old-fashioned lifestyle that American society had totally rejected.

Recently, however, those porcelain cook stoves have regained popularity and are sometimes seen in even the most up-to-date kitchens. Usually, they are more decorative than functional, but they are valued, nonetheless. The really valuable cook stoves are the antique black-and-nickel models, some of which date to the 19th century. A recent check of prices for models in nice condition revealed that they sometimes sell for several thousand dollars. Even if one is interested, at least financially, it is late to consider collecting them.

Since our part of the country (Idaho) was always way behind the popular trends, cook stoves retained their value much longer here. As late as the 1970s, old black and nickel stoves could still be found. When they were retired, they were sometimes stored in a shed on the farm. My brother obtained our grandmother’s Majestic stove and uses it in his mountain cabin. I asked about a Monarch cook stove stored by an elderly couple and was told I could have it if I would haul it off. My wife and I installed it in our kitchen and use it often, particularly in the winter. Thus, we brothers both have impressive examples of classic kitchen ranges.

Finding a wood-burning cook stove in the rough

Years ago, back when wood- and coal-burning stoves were basically worthless, while hauling firewood out of the mountains of Idaho I ran across an ancient abandoned cabin that was falling down. It was built by miners in the 1890s. At the time I discovered it, a cattleman owned the land it was on. The only item still in it was the remains of an old black-and-nickel-style cook stove. Probably because it was extremely heavy (the stove was mostly made out of cast iron), it was abandoned by the last occupants more than a half century ago. All the surface lids were missing and the leaking roof meant that it basically looked just rusty. Pack rats (also known as wood rats or trade rats) had filled every nook and cranny with debris of all kinds. The cast iron stove was a visual blight. When I contacted the landowner, he said his plan was to burn the old cabin.

Since I am an enthusiast of old stoves and could see the one in question had some possibilities, I got permission from the cattleman to salvage it. If I hauled it off, the hulk of it wouldn’t remain as a nuisance after he burned down the cabin.

One Sunday afternoon, the family went on a picnic into the mountains near the cabin. My parents took their small Jeep and my wife and I took ours; it has a cargo box large enough to haul an item the size of the stove. It was all that my dad and I could do to load the heavy stove, even after we removed all the junk the rats had stored in it. When we headed home, the sad old stove looked almost presentable in its cleaned-up state.    

Unintended consequences

On the way home we stopped along the road to pick wild chokecherries, which make great jam and syrup. My wife, who was expecting our second child, stayed in the cab of the Jeep while the rest of us picked. My dad happened to look back at the vehicles and saw a pack rat sticking his head out of the old stove chimney. Apparently, he had hidden inside while we loaded the stove. Obviously we didn’t want to haul a rat home, so I had to try to get rid of him.

When I got close, he retreated into the internal part of the stove, so I got a stick and loudly banged on it. Eventually he climbed back up out of the chimney until about half of his body was exposed. I took a big swing with my stick to knock him off. Unfortunately my stick was a little too short, and all it did was scoot him along the top of the Jeep cab. When he came to the edge he grabbed onto the rain gutter with his paws and his momentum caused him to swing through the open window and into the cab. He landed on my wife who let out a scream. That scared him so badly he jumped out onto the ground and disappeared into the ditch.

In the stillness that ensued, my wife said through clenched teeth, “TAKE ME HOME!” The berry picking immediately ceased and home we went. No physical damage resulted from her confrontation with the wayward rat, but some question remained as to whether the trauma would have a negative effect on our unborn child. Fortunately that did not happen, and today our son is a computer engineer for Hewlett-Packard and has children of his own.

Several decades later, we still have the old stove, which has been stored inside since we got it. It is still in sad condition, but it could be restored with enough effort. We got more than we bargained for when we went to haul it home. The stow-away rat made the salvage effort a memorable event. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on Idaho farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. He is also a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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