Wednesday, September 19, 2012

That Special Scent

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


JaneofVirginia said...

I love the hint of burned wood in the cold. My neighbors burn wood, and sadly in a place with so many trees, we do not. Our heat is electric, with gaslogs for emergencies. The builder thought that in an emergency, the gaslogs, which is a system which works even without electricity, would keep us warmer than going in and out for wood. I still love the smell of wood burning stoves in the distance.

Sixbears said...

Here in Northern NH, firewood is survival. Just cut a deal for 4 full cords 4X4X8, for $500, cut and split.

Good selection of mixed hardwoods around here: maple, birch, cherry, beech, oak, and a few others in small amounts.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well.Thanks for sharing this information.And I'll love to read your next post too.

Brian said...

I enjoyed your old firewood tales, I used to fill many trailers up with split oak,elm,cherry and ash which is similar to your hickory and what everyone wanted .I also like my woodsmoke, thanks Gorges :)

Gorges Smythe said...

I'd still heat with wood were it up to me, Jane.

The irony is, Sixbears, is that price isn't that much more than what we were getting a quarter of a century ago. Everything else has certainly gone up though!

Thanks, A.

Glad you enjoyed it, Brian.

Angela said...

My parents burned wood in the fireplace all winter long. I loved sitting in front of the fire. We have free gas so we have the fire logs that makes it easier but it isn't the same as a real fire. It does put out the heat but you can't sit in front of it like a real fire. The heat comes out different from a real fire.

Susie Swanson said...

I love this post Gorges and it brings back a lot of memories.. When I was a kid that's all we heated with and cooked with it too.. I can still smell the fires burning.. I remember late in the evening, we would see smoke all over the valley.. People were chugging up their fires for the night, or building one.. My Dad sold pulp wood for a living too and so did alot of folks.. There are still quite a few people around that do it for a living.. Like you I'd love to heat with wood again...Thanks for sharing.

Bob Mc said...

Around here it's oak and Douglas fir. Plenty of pine around, but it puts to much creosote in the flu which leads to flu fires. Not cold enough for a fire yet, but mornings are getting chilly so it won't be long until I start a small fire to take the chill off.

Orin Nusbaum said...

My wife isn't as much into the fire as I am, but trying to get warm in this heat pump-heated house after working in the cold all day is a loser's bet unless I build a fire. Mostly oak and ash here. Douglas fir burns too fast and doesn't put out enough heat for me. I really like throwing some green oak on the fire just before bed. Holds the fire 'til mid-morning!

Gorges Smythe said...

You're right, Angela; it just isn't the same.

Glad you enjoyed it, Susie.

I envy you, Bob.

We used green wood the same way, Orin. You have to watch in an airtight stove, though. The worst case of creosote I ever had was from burning TOO MUCH green oak!