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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Warm Thoughts


This week's cold snap will turn the cranberries and maple leaves red and send some of us out to finally buy that new storm door or put plastic over the windows. It also sparks questions (no pun intended) about how Wisconsin residents used to keep warm.

For nearly all of our 12,000-year history, most heat for homes came from an open fire. For at least 1,000 years, shelters such as this Ojibwe lodge had openings at the top for smoke to escape under which, on the ground, the fire was made.

White settlers brought with them from the East the practice of building stone hearths and fireplaces for heating and cooking. Elizabeth Baird, arriving in Green Bay as a teenage bride in 1824, found that "In winter everyone had to keep a horse and a man, as each family had to provide their own supply of wood. The young man we hired, chopped the wood, hauled it to the house, prepared it for the fire, and carried it in. He would also bring in the water, take care of the horse and milk the cow; the latter he considered almost a disgrace." The large hearth around which a family gathered for both light and heat was a common feature of log homes and pioneer life. In rustic settings, it persisted even after wood stoves had been invented. Here is how an 1862 logging camp bunkhouse was heated north of Eau Claire in 1862: "The camp was of the old `State of Maine' type, about 24 feet by 36 feet in size, with side walls about three feet high. As I recall it there was a space of about 15 feet from the door to the fireplace, which was in the middle of the room and served for both heating and cooking purposes. The fireplace was simply an elevated platform of earth called the `caboose.' "A large hole in the roof allowed the smoke to escape. Sometimes a mud and stick chimney was built on top of the roof to improve the draft."

By the middle of the 19th century wood burning stoves had begun to replace open hearth fireplaces, not only in homes but also in schools, courthouses and churches. "The schoolroom was heated with a long box stove," recalled one Waupaca resident of her 1850s girlhood, "that took in big sticks of wood, and the room was nice and warm."

These rectangular wood stoves were in turn replaced by pot-bellied coal burning stoves a few decades later, and delivery of coal became a staple of business in every city. It was first imported by ship and then distributed by rail in order to find its way to consumers. Coal, which not only heated buildings but powered railroad locomotives and other steam-powered machinery, remained an important industry until the 1930s.

By then, oil and electricity had begun to replace it as sources of heat and power. Oil was first to put to use in the mid-19th century, when speculators even hoped to find reserves of it near LaCrosse and Ozaukee. By the 1920s, oil delivery trucks such as this one were as common as coal wagons had once been.

Electricity grew rapidly in popularity following its introduction in the 1880s until, by the time of the First World War, it was replacing coal as a power source. Wisconsin's many rivers and waterfalls, which two generations before had attracted the owners of grist mills, began to generate hydroelectric power instead, and heaters, cooking stoves and other appliances powered by electricity began to be found in thousands of homes.
:: Posted in Curiosities on October 19, 2005

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