MOVING THE STOVE
By Agnes Trausch Wiltrout
The continuity in my mother’s kitchen was wonderfully soothing for me as a child. Just as sure as the trees budded in the spring and put forth leaves, and just as surely as the leaves turned golden and fell in the fall, another rite of passage was taking place inside my home.
Each spring the heating stove that had dominated the kitchen for five months or so was relegated to an ignoble spot on the back porch. The large, round black stove had been the center of our existence all winter. We simmered food on it and popped our popping corn in a long-handled wire basket, a forerunner of modern air-popped corn. It dried my wet mittens and warmed my cold fingers and toes after an afternoon of playing outside.
My parents faithfully fed it cobs and coal through the hinged lid on the front top and just as faithfully opened the small bottom door to remove ashes and clinkers. It warmed the kitchen and our lives revolved around it all winter.
I was never part of the decision making process about when the move should take place. I imagine it was a combination of the weather and the time available. I’d wake up one day and it would be stove moving time, or come home from school to find the place in turmoil with the job half done and stove pipe scattered on the front porch.
Moving that black behemoth was a ritual that meant a certain collision course for my parents. Mom was fussy about things. She wanted it done her way, and that meant done right. Daddy was in a hurry. Maybe he had plans to move the stove quickly and then attend to farming duties. They were married at least 20 years before I could have a memory of stove moving so that meant many previous bouts of moving the stove, and they still didn’t seem to agree on anything to do with the whole ordeal.
First the black chimney pipe was removed. It led from the top back of the stove to a hole in the chimney about two feet from the top of the nine-foot ceiling. If you’ve never experienced chimney soot then you wouldn’t understand why this maneuver had to be done very carefully. Soot is a dark “poof” of material that can quickly make a mess of a room. One false move with a dirty stove pipe means a fine layer of grimy soot everywhere. Perhaps that was part of the problem because mom didn’t want the extra work of cleaning up soot and daddy just wanted to finish the job quickly. She didn’t want him to do anything when she wasn’t looking and he tried to do everything quickly while her back was turned. “What do you have to do that for, you’re just making a lot of work!” my father would shout as mom scurried around being particular about the stove, the pipe and the linoleum just to mention a few. As a child, the worst position to be in during stove moving was the middle. Even though we were all in the same room, both sides voiced their frustrations with the other to me. It was the old “daddy is going to scratch the linoleum” and “mom has to make all this work” routine. A blank stare and innocent shrug was usually enough response to keep me out of the direct line of fire. Stove moving was an opportune time to practice the childhood art of laying low.
Stove pipes came apart in two to three foot sections that were cleaned outdoors, then rolled in newspapers and stored in the storage part of the upstairs. The chimney hole left open after the removal of the pipe had to be cleaned out very carefully to prevent soot from flying all over the room. Then the hole was closed off with a round tin “plate” with spring-loaded clips on the side that slid into the opening. The plates were made especially for this purpose and had colorful painted scenes or designs on the front. They could no doubt be found in antique shops now and most people would have no idea what they were used for.
The stove was tugged, shoved, and wrestled across two rooms and through two doorways, being careful not to chip the woodwork paint, and onto the back porch where it was wrapped in oilcloth to spend the summer. How soon its presence was forgotten after it was moved out of the kitchen. The electric range moved to take its spot and the kitchen seemed so much roomier and brighter after that.
The whole process was reversed the next fall. My parents were always careful to check the chimney for bird nests that may have been built over the summer. A nest of dried grass and sticks could mean a dangerous chimney fire. I remember such a fire caused much alarm once. Flames shot from the top of the chimney and the walls became very hot from the inferno inside the brick chimney. The roar of the fire was easily heard inside the house. While it was a novel and somewhat frightening experience for me, I can now imagine how concerned my parents were at the prospect of a serious house fire.
While visiting the farm where I grew up, I happened to run across that black heating stove wrapped in oilcloth and stored away, never to be used again. It was much smaller and less imposing than I remembered from my childhood. It was just metal and iron now, not the center of my universe, and that had made it shrink considerably. It’s been 23 years since I moved away to my own life and family, but the stove still fills my mind with wonderful memories just as it filled the kitchen of my childhood.
Written in 1991