Stoke the Fire

Eaton’s advertises oil, coal and wood-burning heaters, Fall 1949.

In the coldest days of winter, many Winnipeggers today can set the temperature in our homes and rely on a furnace powered by natural gas or electricity to conveniently and reliably keep our home warm. But it was not always so.

For much of their lives, the Dickies from Gunton: Canadian Brothers in Two World Wars, had to make much more of an effort. Chopping wood and shoveling coal to fuel the furnace, and keeping it going, was not so easy.

On a cold prairie day and night, imagine keeping the fire going in the old woodstove, where mother would melt snow for cooking and bathing, and often keep the kettle on not only for tea or coffee, but also to provide steam in order to add humidity to the dry winter air. Then there was the old furnace, often called a Quebec heater whether it was one in name or not. This furnace was round, with pipes to carry the heat as far as possible through the house. In the furnace, the boys would build a fire with dry wood, kindling, newspaper and coal.  As the fire burned down, they would shovel in additional coal. It was important to ensure proper air intake and heat distribution by adjusting the doors to bring in fresh air and circulate the hot air. With practice, they could well control the fire and get the most out of their winter fuel.

In the depth of winter, if the stove or furnace went out, things cooled off very quickly and tempers heated up. Winters are cold on the prairie and homes were not well-insulated at the time. With single-pane windows and little or uninsulated walls, roofs and basements, it got drafty pretty quickly and no one wanted to climb out from under that warm quilt on the bed.

They also knew oil furnaces and boiler or steam heating systems. As a plumber in the 1920s, Percy would suffer great injury when an over 600 lb radiator fell on him at work.

It would not be until much later in life that the boys would discover the convenience of gas heat. No more stoking, shoveling, fuel delivery, dirt, dust, and ashes to remove. They would marvel at thermostat temperature control.

If Percy and Earl were around today, they would be amazed at the possibilities of geothermal heating and cooling systems that draw the heat or cold from the earth to regulate a building’s temperature. And they would be surprised to know that heating with coal has been banned in Manitoba. According to a Dec. 23, 2013 media release from the province, “Because coal burning is a significant contributor to climate change, Manitoba is banning the use of coal for space heating.”

In their day, coal was an important fuel to heat the home.

Follow my blog

Buy my book