Firewood used to play a huge part in my life. A woodstove in the dining room provided much of the heat for our home as I was growing up. It was fed largely with slabs and edgings from our sawmill, cut-offs and unsplitable chunks from our firewood sales, and the occasional log end. Both sets of grandparents burned those same cast-offs in their coal grates through the day to make their coal go further and to help keep the chimney cleaner. Firewood heated my own home until several years ago, when I traded way too much money in utility bills for less complaining from my wife.
I think it was during the 1930’s that my granddad started selling firewood to help make ends meet. Having been in multiple businesses over the years, and having been born and raised in the same town where he lived, he knew a lot of the old, established families of the area and soon had a list of “upper crust” customers. My dad, then a boy, accompanied him on many of his deliveries. I grew up doing the same thing with my own father, as he continued the practice of squeezing the most profit possible out of the trees that he cut for lumber. Many of our customers were the same ones that my grandfather had sold to, or their children.
Back then, we sold by what was called locally a “cord rick.” These days, it’s called a “face cord” and is a stack of wood eight feet wide and four feet high, by whatever depth the sticks of firewood are long. At the time that Dad had to quit selling wood due to heart trouble, I believe he was getting $35 for a face cord of two-foot-long mixed hardwoods. Four “face feet” of that would be edgings for kindling. As much as half of the remainder might be slabs, the rest would be round and split pieces. An occasional piece of dry pine might find its way in also. If someone wanted all round and split hardwoods, he charged an extra $10. If they wanted all one species (usually hickory), he charged an additional $10.
We sold firewood all year, since Dad never promised anyone seasoned wood. He couldn’t see the sense in handling it twice for no extra money and told the buyers that if they wanted dry wood that they should buy it at least six months ahead. Most folks just burned it in a fireplace for atmosphere anyway. Many is the time that I came home from school to climb in the truck and help Dad deliver from one to three face cords of firewood. Sometimes, we’d have supper first; other times we’d just grab a snack and take off. Much of our wood had to be stacked in a garage, basement or backyard. Sometimes, we’d have to carry it a good ways by hand; other places we could make the work easier with a large, custom made wheel-barrow. Dad charged extra for stacking, the price dependent on the difficulty. Some evenings, we’d be lucky and the buyer would just have us toss it off in a pile.
Autumn evenings were my favorite times to deliver wood. The weather usually meant a flannel shirt, which protected my arms from the wood better anyway. The evenings would be cool and pleasant, even though we hadn’t started our own wood-burning for the year. We always depended on little gas space-heaters to take the chill off until the woodstove’s heat would be needed 24-7. After we made our deliveries, we’d climb back into the old GMC 2-1/2 ton truck to head home. It always rode rougher once it was empty, so we felt every bump in the road. Riding along in the gloam, I knew that my favorite time of year had arrived for sure, when the smell of wood smoke came drifting in the truck window for the first time that year. For some reason, that first fire was usually lit by some purist and the sweet, mellow scent of hickory permeated the air. Somehow, I always felt those moments were special, even though I was just a kid. Before leaving “civilization,” we’d usually stop at the little store at the edge of town and have a bottle of pop and a candy bar and shoot the breeze with the proprietor. If Dad had been paid by check, the store owner would cash it for him if he could. Then we’d head home for supper, or a hot cup of tea, a pleasant tiredness in our bones.
I still enjoy being out during evenings in the fall, and I still always notice the first smell of wood smoke in town. Most folks today don’t know the difference between hickory and hackberry, and oak is the predominant scent (always was, actually). Still, once in a great while, I’ll get lucky and catch the sweet, mellow scent of hickory smoke wafting through the darkening scenery. Then the bitter-sweet memories of my youth come flooding back. © 2012