My wife was a subdivision kid who mostly grew up in a series of new and newer homes. Until she married me. Then she got an education in old house living that led her to admit, after we’d been married for several years, that one of her favorite sounds was the click-whoosh of a furnace automatically kicking into action on a cold winter morning.
My folks were farmers who rented land; my dad preferred cash rent to farming on shares, because everyone knew where they stood, but he did rent on shares (paying a percentage of income) from time to time.
March was the traditional time farmers either contracted for the next year on the same farm or moved to a new place. The local news columns of the era’s newspapers have lists of the farmers moving on and the going-away parties their neighbors were throwing for them. That process regulated a variety of other activities as well. My folks got married in February, for instance, so that they’d be ready to rent a farm and move to it in March.
One of their first farms was the notorious Gates Place. It was an old farmhouse, the despair of my mother. In the winter, it was so drafty that snow actually sifted into my parents’ bedroom and collected on the top quilt on their bed. The teakettle was known to freeze on the back burner of the big cookstove in the kitchen, even with the fire banked in front. All other farms they rented in later years were measured against the Gates Place.
By the time I came along, my parents and my two sisters were renting the Butcher Place. Although it was a relatively new house (at least compared to the Gates Place), it wasn’t a particularly well-built one. The front door, for instance, was so poorly made that every fall my sisters packed its cracks with rags to slow down the wind as it whistled through. But it had a nice set of buildings and it was only a mile from the one-room school we all went to.
We had a coal-fired hot air furnace there that my dad had to stoke every morning. And like The Old Man in “A Christmas Story,” he did battle with the clinkers. My dad installed an interesting attachment that consisted of a small electric motor that automatically opened and closed the furnace damper when the thermostat upstairs called for either more or less heat. We did, however, have indoor plumbing. Although the house was built without a bathroom, my parents had my grandfather add one in a corner of the basement. The hot water for the tub was supplied by a corncob-fired heater, and after I got to be six or so years old, it was my job to stoke it, a vital job on Saturday early evenings when my sisters were preparing for dates. Stoking the heater taught be an interesting lesson in physics and chemistry, when I used a pair of one of my sisters’ nylon panties as a hotpad to open the water heater’s firebox lid. I watched in amazement as the panties melted around the spiral metal of the handle. The owner of the panties was not amused. And for some reason my father seemed to have developed a sudden coughing fit that almost sounded like a guffaw as he inspected the wreckage.
When we moved into town to my great-grandparents’ house, we enjoyed a modern electric hot water heater and hot water central heating, but it was still coal-fired. In the fall, the rusty brown truck from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora (motto: “Our name is Brown, our coal is black, we treat you white”) showed up to fill the coal bin downstairs. The guys who delivered the coal were black, and in later years I wondered what they thought about the company motto.
Within a few years, my folks had a fuel oil burner installed in the furnace. No more dirty coal! No more stuffing rags into all the cracks in the coal bin walls and door to keep out the greasy black coal dust on delivery day. The big fuel oil tank was wrestled downstairs and installed in the coal bin. And then, just a year later, the gas company ran natural gas lines down our street and the furnace was switched over.
When my wife and I married, we first lived in an old two-flat apartment in DeKalb while we were going to school. It had steam heat, which, frankly, scared me to death. A hot water system can’t blow up; a steam system certainly can.
Then we moved to Oswego into a post-World War II house that had a modern hot air furnace.
It was when we bought our first home that our adventures in winter living really began. The house was next to my parents, and had been owned by my great-great grandparents. It had no central heat, instead relying on a gas heating stove in the living room. A grate above the kitchen sink could be opened to provide heat to one of the upstairs bedrooms. The others were heated by simply opening the door on the staircase to the second storey.
We nearly froze to death for the first couple years we lived there until I finally bought a natural gas Sears wall furnace. That, at least, knocked more of the chill off the place. And a tiny wall furnace installed in the laundry room (mostly) kept the pipes from freezing. It was after installing the wall furnace that my wife became to enamored with the “whump” sound it made turning on.
We eventually bought my folks house, thereby keeping it in the family since my great-grandparents built it in 1908. And we’ve been enjoying hot water heat from the Weil-McLain boiler my dad installed back in 1964 ever since. That puppy’s 100 percent cast iron and porcelain clad steel and ought to last forever provided the circulation pump gets a few drops of oil every year. Which it does.
Central heating really is a wonderful thing. It’s something you really can’t fully appreciate until you don’t have it. Which is why, when you get it back, that “whump” the burner makes when the furnace or boiler turns on sounds so positively inviting.