Measures of warmth from old furnaces

The wood-burning furnace sitting at the end of a driveway along Highway 121 down by Pigeon Falls looked lonely and unloved when I passed it the other day, and I considered the unfairness in that.

The furnace likely provided warmth and comfort for a nice family during its years of service. But there it was, looking a bit abandoned but for the “for sale” sign announcing that it still had ties with the folks to whom it gave warmth.

There likely are plenty of folks – even in here in our northern Driftless Area — who don’t think much about the importance of such a utilitarian piece of equipment. Furnaces are mostly forgotten in and around homes, except for those winter moments when they malfunction on a sub-zero January night.

I’ll proudly stand and proclaim my long-standing appreciation for those underappreciated beacons of warmth. I admit to even being a little defensive when it comes to my wife Dee and other Southern relatives referring to them as “heaters.”

Heaters are what you use in small spaces; furnaces maintain winter warmth in bigger places such as our old Eimon Homestead farmhouse up here on the ridge between Pigeon Falls and Osseo.

I’ve occasionally given consideration about why furnaces have been fairly important to me, other than the obvious fact that we’d most likely freeze to death without them in these parts. I’ve generally concluded that my thinking has to do with a big, single furnace register which gave warmth during my youngest years in my family’s old farmhouse over at Veefkind.

A single big register – maybe 4-feet-by-4-feet and resting just inside the living-room doorway from the dining room – was the only source for heat from the big old fire-breathing furnace in the basement below.

I had friends who feared we’d fall into the furnace’s hellish fire if the register’s decorative iron grate might ever fail. While that fear lingered, however, I knew the heat register to be a morning gathering place for warmth and hugs; a comforting place for a small child to curl up with a blanket on a cold winter morning.

Having the house’s single heat source in the living room assured our family would gather near it in the living room on those coldest days and nights, dispersing to icy-cold places distant in the house not an appealing consideration.

The furnace also brought our entire neighborhood together, families up and down our rural road gathering farm-to-farm to share the work of cutting and splitting firewood on cool autumn days. The smell of tobacco smoke mixes in my memories with the smell of sawdust and the mystery of how my father and other neighborhood farmers could work so steadily and hard with cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

It took many years for me to appreciate the way my family was drawn around the furnace register. Likewise, it took many years for snow-dampened cold fingers with wood-slivers in wet yellow chore gloves to turn into romantic memories of firewood-making. In the meantime, I found little sorrow the day my father announced that we were joining the 20th Century and installing an oil-burning furnace in the house.

My joy ran high on those days when I returned from school to see a local furnace-installation company’s workers installing duct-work into the old farm house. We were modern, the same way the place had been modernized with the indoor toilet installed soon after my birth.

The place I sit to write in the old Eimon house was built sometime around 1868, when the place was homesteaded. Somewhere in the wall behind me is an old chimney that more than a century ago felt the warmth of burned firewood; another chimney still forming part of the living room wall in the next room having felt the same warmth. But today, as I look out the windows to see large snowflakes falling on a cold November day, I trust the modern liquid propane furnace in the basement to kick on and occasionally throw some warmth through vents piped throughout the house.

A rational part of me says our furnace and the duct-workings we have are good – though, admittedly, I wouldn’t mind even more modernized geothermal and solar systems.

And then, I see a semi-retired wood-burning furnace for sale along the highway. I step into the farmyard and smell oak wood-smoke wisped up the Timber Creek valley and onto Eimon Ridge from our neighbor’s wood-burning furnace. When that happens the wistful side of my being makes me want to travel back a generation or two on that wood smoke and revisit those furnaces of yore.

If I had an old iron furnace register like that from the Veefkind farmhouse of my childhood, I’d occasionally lay it onto the floor of our Eimon Homestead home and invite my family to gather around it for warmth. It wouldn’t even matter that the heat is coming from a fancy LP-fueled furnace and blown through vents along the walls.

— Scott Schultz

One thought on “Measures of warmth from old furnaces”

  1. I rember all these, especially the register that signalled the demarcation rwixt living room and den. My family installed a gas furnace complete with vents but then ran a vent line also to the big register. Good story Scott. I thought you were going to tell me you bought the old stove abd set it up in an outbuilding for a writing spot. 🙏🏻👊🏻

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