Wood Keeps the Home Fires Burning

Family’s toil ensured a wood pile that would stand up to fierce winter weather.

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by Clell G. Ballard
In areas like ours, where deep winter snow is common, a wood heat back-up is essential.

Much more than urban dwellers, farm folks make an effort to be self-sufficient. There are two good reasons for that. First is the fact that the basics of life are dealt with on a day-by-day basis. After all, agriculture and what it produces is the basis of all life.

Second, living some distance from modern conveniences, farmers are responsible for those things themselves at least part of the time. If you are totally dependent on electrical service, disruptions in power supply – a regular part of life in rural areas – can be devastating.

The tried-and-true method of making sure one’s home has a heat source independent of the power grid is to have a wood-burning stove. No matter what happens with the weather – extreme cold, high winds or ice storms that take down power lines, or deep snow that isolates a person from outside help – a stack of firewood close at hand means adequate comfort, protection from frozen water pipes and ability to prepare food.

In isolated places, like the home where we lived when raising our family, we decided that, even though our log home was equipped to burn stove oil for heat, we would use wood exclusively. A person can, for a reasonable fee, purchase a permit to cut firewood in the Sawtooth National Forest that is close enough that we can travel there, cut a truckload of wood and get back home in one day. We always took our World War II U.S. Army trucks because they have 4-wheel drive and shrug off any damage that modern vehicles would experience when having to go through heavy brush to reach available wood to cut.

Operating with a built-in workforce

No matter what an activity is, in our country people have strongly held beliefs as to which of two choices is best. When it comes to firewood, in our area some swear that fir is the best for heat. Since we don’t have hardwood forests, it usually comes down to that or the more common pine. Since fir trees are much less available for harvest and pine trees are more easily accessed, we always cut and burned pine.

Visitors to our area would find it surprising to hear local folks talk about a trip going after wood somewhat like urban residents might talk about a trip to the mall. Almost everybody headed into the hills sometime during decent weather. What is understood but rarely mentioned is the amount of work necessary to locate dead trees (often in inaccessible spots), fall them, cut them into stove- or fireplace-lengths, load and haul them home. Wood heat may be inexpensive money-wise but labor-wise it is huge undertaking.

Since we have four sons, we had a built-in workforce. They never complained about helping out, no matter when the time came for us to make a trip into the hills. Initially they just helped load, but as they grew, they began using small chainsaws to limb the downed trees. Eventually they used big saws like dad used, and a lot of wood could be cut in a short period of time.

It should be noted that my wife, Marilyn, and daughter, Melodie, rarely went on a trip with us but their efforts made the whole project successful. They packed our lunches and had a huge supper waiting for us when we got home. Then they often helped unload the trucks as we put the wood in the woodshed.

Laughter lightens the load

The photo at top right shows me lifting a large hunk of wood to the top of the rack while son Grant stacks the old army truck bed. The tailgate was left off until the truck was almost loaded and then put back on. The last of the wood had to be hoisted over.

The permit allowed only dead trees to be cut. It wasn’t too often we found large dead trees that could be cut up for wood. We liked them because their size meant we “made wood” fairly quickly. The piece shown in the picture is probably two-thirds the size of the largest ones that we encountered. Although it was dry, it still weighed close to 100 pounds.

After a tree was fallen, its branches had to be cut off. That meant that the area where we sawed the trunk into firewood sections was cluttered. In addition, the cut wood was always some distance from the trucks, often either uphill or downhill (or sometimes both). Each piece had to be picked up and carried over difficult terrain. With the larger pieces, we staggered around and had to laugh at ourselves – and that made our exertion easier.

Splitting wood can be enjoyable

The actual process of procuring firewood represents only half of the story of using it to heat a home. Storing it in some convenient manner is essential. Logically, it would be stored inside, making a woodshed important. Remember the days when an unmanageable child was “taken to the woodshed”? We all knew that had nothing to do with the building’s contents, but I digress.

A cord of wood is a stack 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet deep. When using wood as the sole source of heat, a person needs many cords every winter. That translates to the need of a fairly large storage space.

If inside storage is not possible, wood can be covered and stored outside. Either way, it must be split into pieces small enough to fit the heating stove. Chopping wood is good exercise and in cold weather it more than keeps the “chopper” warm. As with all activities, one learns to “read” the block of wood being chopped: where the knots are, for instance, to facilitate success. For someone who has never done that job, it might be surprising that although a lot of energy is required, the process of splitting wood can be an enjoyable activity. Common modern log splitters reduce the effort by about 75 percent but provide little or no exercise benefits.

The old order changeth, yielding way to new

The split pieces of wood must then be carried into the house or shed. That is what some modern folks object to, as a certain amount of mess goes along with that. Fortunately, it is a “clean mess,” in that split wood residue is basically what one confronts on the inside of the wooden blocks. The bark is where most of the mess is and, again, the type of wood being used determines how much has to be dealt with. The best thing about it all is that wood heat has an appeal and charm all its own and anyone who has ever experienced it can’t help but marvel at it.

After the wood burns, the ashes must be removed. Occasionally the chimney needs to be cleaned. Modern products alleviate some of the drawbacks of burning wood for home heat. Pellet stoves promise to make wood heating cleaner and have done so in some instances but the ability of individuals to provide for their winter comfort through their own effort has been replaced by the financial cost of commercially made pellets. The heat feels just as good, but considerable money changes hands.

Not everyone lives in a place where individuals have access to firewood available for harvest. Even in our isolated area, commercial operations have sprung up that deliver semi-truck loads of dry logs during the summer. The loads, when cut up by the purchaser, yield about 15 cords. The cost of a winter’s wood comes out to about $100 a cord. The labor is the same as before but the cost is considerably less than purchasing wood from a supplier. No longer does a person have to stagger around carrying heavy pieces through difficult terrain, and the shared laughter that sustained us through all those situations will fade away. For many years, it made hard work a bit more bearable. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is 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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