Stokers and other things lost

Harry Drabik

As a kid in Chicago I remember our basement holding an item that was my father’s pride and joy. (It seemed to rival me in his affection, so I remember it very well.) That item, kept gleaming clean despite its grubby role, was an automatic coal stoker. It was an after market add on to our hulking old hot-water furnace. The stoker had a hopper that had to be filled before leaving for work or before bed. The full hopper allowed the homeowner to be gone all day at work or sleep the night without the need to go down and shovel coal into the furnace. What man would wish to rise from bed at 1:00 AM to shovel coal? How many “housewives” cared to be coal tenders during the day? The automatic stoker freed them both from a disagreeably dirty chore that interfered with other parts of their routine. Filling the stoker hopper twice a day was far less burden than scuttling to the basement every four hours to maintain a decent fire in winter.

Of course, the work with coal fired heating wasn’t limited to stoking. The ashes and clinkers had to be cleared out on a regular basis. The alleys of our south side Chicago neighborhood were clinker boulevards. Clinkers were also the favored ammunition to throw at kids from rival neighborhoods. I suppose it was at least a weekly chore to clear the furnace and haul the ashes out. Another chore was, of course, keeping the coal room in decent order. Having a sealed coal room meant the dust of coal being dumped below didn’t invade the entire house, though some of it always did. Coal would be shifted from one side of the room to the other to avoid having “old” coal stuck forever at the bottom corners. Coal rooms had stout doors that were kept locked from the indoors basement side. The locked door prevented burglars from using the coal chute as entry to the rest of the house. Some coal chutes (iron hatches) were kept locked from inside, as ours was, to be unlocked only on delivery days so the coal man could deliver down the chute. I recall Chicago relatives near dancing with joy when natural gas reached their vicinity. Gas meant no more coal shoveling, no stokers, no ash and clinkers, no more need for a coal room. A hole was cut into the old furnace to place the new gas gun that replaced the coal. The gun was not as efficient, but who cared? Freedom from coal chores was more important than a few pennies. Well, more than a few pennies, but who was counting? Coal went. Few traces remain. If you know the scent you can detect the aroma of an old coal room and if you know where to look might spot the small holes (usually in the kitchen) that were part of the coal routine. Small holes? Yes, there were holes, sets of them that allowed someone upstairs to adjust the coal fire below without going down. One chain controlled draft, the other damper. It was very simple. But with gas and fuel oil we started to use thermostats to regulate the heat. You pretty much had to keep a coal fire going. The other two fuels could be turned on and off almost at will. Efficiency often suffered for the sake of convenience and modernity. Most did not count the cost.

Also lost with the close of the coal heating era was a host of laundry issues. In pre-dryer times all clothes were hung to dry. When we moved to northern Minnesota mother continued to do this in winter using the freeze-dry method. But, the air in Minnesota wasn’t like that on the South Side where every house around belched coal soot. Put that on your whites and see how it looks. With the outdoors compromised in winter for drying whites, most homes had one form of rack or another for drying finer white things indoors. Colored things were not as critical and could dry outdoors on clothes lines, some of ingenious design. The clothes pin bag was an essential. My mother thought the spring loaded pins excessive. She relied on the bowling pin form. Do you recall the correct way to hang a sock? By the toe. Where possible clothes were “lapped” to share a pin. There were clothes poles, too, forked rods approx ten feet long that lifted the line heavy with wet clothes so things didn’t drag in the dirt. Clothes dryers eliminated all that, though to the bitter end my mother insisted things dried outdoors were far superior.

Burning wood, which many of us in rural parts do, is a close relation to coal fired days. In a sense wood fuel is a form of stored solar energy, but you can’t get a tax credit for that. Too bad. But, I’d still rather pay my fuel bill to a local logger (or to coal miner if that was an option) than see it sent to the Arab League Oil Cartel. Having begun this piece with a recollection of stokers I’m reminded now contemporary pellet and corn stoves work on the model of a stoker system using uniform pellets or kernels instead of coal lumps. It’s impressive to see how little residue there is from pellet fuel burning. It’s far, far less than what I scrape out of my wood stove a couple times per week. Some years ago I thought it might be nice to have a small supply of lignite handy to burn on occasion instead of or along with my birch and maple. Well, unless you’re a coal fired plant or other industry you’re pretty much out of luck. There was no coal to be had, at least not in the form of a few sacks. I did eye the coal pile at the Taconite Harbor power plant. There’s lots of coal there for the taking, but at my age stealing heavy things that need to be bodily hauled across a fair distance is a physical impossibility that in this case keeps my criminal record clear. Otherwise I might be tempted. After all, the coal’s right out there in the open, not in a coal room where it should be. What else would they expect but theft?