Mail Call: Letters to the Editor — March/April 2017

Readers write to the editors with stories of heating with wood, making homemade bread, cast-iron cookware, farm apprenticeships, felling trees and more.

Fireplace

This small Harman heats a 2,500-square-foot home with plenty of coals remaining when you wake up in the morning.

Photo courtesy Richard Gey

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75, and Still Going Strong

I read your “Feeding the Fire” editorial. I have been cutting and splitting firewood since I became a teenager. I earned my spending money that way. I agree that there is nothing like wood heat. It warms the soul.

There were times in my working career when I did not have the opportunity to do so because of working internationally. But I have always come back to heating with wood.

I will turn 75 next month, and still look forward to the hum of a chainsaw and using a splitting maul. Yes, I don’t even use a hydraulic splitter. You learn to “read the wood” in all those years.

We have enough dead standing wood on our property to last a thousand years. Mother Nature makes it faster than we can burn it.

This small Harman (above) heats a 2,500-square-foot home with plenty of coals remaining when you wake up in the morning.

My wife and I would not have it any other way. Electricity can go out, and we are self-sufficient.

Richard Gey
Via email

We admire your love of the chore and the hard work you put in to heat your home, Richard. And we share your love for the hum of the saw. Wishing you safe cutting and splitting for years to come! – Editors


Decades of Wood Heat

I have been heating with wood for several decades. The experience has been a whole family adventure.

We bought 120 acres of heavy wooded land in the Ozarks. As soon as my boys were old enough to pick up sticks, they were part of our wood gathering chore. We never had to cut any live trees. Nature supplied us with enough blow downs, standing dead wood, and dropped limbs to fill the wood bin.

Even though we all enjoyed the outside work, if the house and the stove are not energy efficient, you are working to heat the great outdoors; the gasoline burnt, calories used, with little gain — not much different than a campfire.

Our experience also taught us to work smarter. I now drag the whole tree to where we will split and stack the firewood. This reduces the “touch time” handling the wood by half. I have a tractor with a loader and 3-point splitter. I cut the trunk down to a log about 10 to 20 feet long. Then I lay the loader bucket perpendicular on top of one end of the log, loop a chain around the log, and then hook it over the front bucket. I lift the entire log up to waist level with the loader, and then cut the log to firewood length. It’s much easier on the back, and no more getting the saw chain into the gravel. Just a half-second nick on a stone trashes a chainsaw blade.

By the way … filing a chain?! Who has time for that? I bought a nifty chainsaw sharpener that looks like the sharpener that the guy at the hardware store uses to sharpen chainsaws, except it clamps to the chainsaw bar so you don’t have to take the chain off. It’s 12-volt so I can do the sharpening out in the back 40. It has all the cut angle adjustments for different species of wood, cutting frozen, or ripping wood.

Thirty years ago we started heating with wood with a woodstove bought at an antique sale. It was for an addition put on a travel trailer in the woods. We were so young and naive. That old woodstove was so full of air leaks there was no control over the combustion. The heat would force us to open windows, and then as the fire died down, we were cold. Getting a full night’s sleep without continuously tending the stove just wasn’t in the cards.

The next level of our adventure was to build a 30-by-40-foot shop that was walled off for living quarters while we built the house. I found a used glass-front stove that was many times as efficient as the stove in the trailer. It only required one trip during the night to throw in a log or two. The heat loss wasn’t so much the stove’s inefficiency as the windows of the shop. We had 10-inch-thick walls with two types of insulation. We should have paid attention to “real” details of the windows that came with the shop’s building package. Yeah, they were double-paned, but that was about it. Any below-freezing weather resulted in ice formation on the inside.

We got tired of the mess in the house that a woodstove makes. It’s not just the ashes and bits of wood around the stove, it’s the layers of dust that coats everything. As we were drawing out the plans for the house, the mechanicals got some serious attention.

The woodstove was out. Bye-bye to the mess. In its place is a highly efficient wood-burning forced-air furnace with LP backup in the basement, with an outside door located at the furnace, and 99 percent of the mess stays outside. I’m really impressed with the furnace. It has an “afterburner” to consume any smoke produced by the combustion. It has a chamber after the firebox that remixes outside air to reburn the leftover vapors from combustion.

This does two things: I get total value out of the work I did to get the wood to the firebox, and it leaves the smokestack clean. We have used it now for 10 years. I have yet to run a brush down the flue. Every year I do a fall inspection. The only remnant of the fire in the flue is a white powder. My 8-inch brush is still in the box. This is great, since the smokestack is on a two-story house with a basement. That’s a whole lot of flue to clean.

The furnace has a thermostat and operates just like a gas or electric furnace. I set the temperature to heat, and a draft fan comes on. This kicks up the fire. A sensor turns on the blower fan when the furnace heats up. When the furnace is hot, another sensor turns the draft fan off. The blower and draft fan run as required to get the temperature set by the thermostat. When the house gets to the temperature as set, it shuts down the draft fan, the blower cools off the furnace and shuts down. The fire smolders until the thermostat calls for more heat, then just like a gas or electric furnace it starts the process again.

The only thing I do is load the firebox once a day. It would hold enough for several days, but in the fall and spring seasons, we really don’t want the heat during the day. It’s just a waste of wood and all our wood-cutting work.

There is a hot water preheater around the firebox. The water temperature from the outside is usually cold when we are using the furnace. This option was money well spent, as it reduces the time the hot water heater runs.

During the house construction, the insulation type and especially the installation got a lot of attention. All the windows are the highest grade — not necessarily the most expensive. You don’t have to spend gobs of money to get good quality and efficiency, just do the homework.

This lifelong adventure has resulted in much less wood burned. I can heat my house for the winter season with less than a cord of wood. I like being outside, but I also like playing with my hobbies. This morning it was 8 degrees. When I went to bed the house was 70. I set the thermostat at 65. In the morning it was 67. A great day for indoor hobbies.

HW Gordon
Huntsville, Arkansas


Breaking Bread

Just opened the November/December 2016 issue of Grit. I don’t often write in, but recently I’ve taken up the Timm family tradition of making our bread. My Grandmother Alma and Dad, Thomas, both from Appleton, Minnesota, made their own bread for years. While both have passed on, I think of them each time I’m mixing and kneading. Thanks for a great resource!

Curt Timm
Pace, Florida


Bread and Soap Memories

You are so right on your article about Karen Keb Will’s breadmaking skills. I had the pleasure of eating her bread and having her as a friend. She also was very proud of learning how to make soap, and I enjoyed teaching her to do so. My friend Heather and I loved meeting Karen and becoming friends. She came to Baldwin many times to visit and make soap. I talked to her two years ago today, her birthday, as she was getting ready for an upcoming trip to California. We made plans for when she returned to Kansas and all the things we wanted to do. Near the top of the list was a bow hunting trip on her farm in Osage County for spring gobblers. Our plans changed, but I am still hoping to sit in a blind with her and watch for that big tom to come out. She will always be in my heart. If you want to read about our soapmaking, there is an article in Grit magazine and online. Also a page is included in the Wills’ book Plowing with Pigs.

Sandra Johnson
Baldwin, Kansas

Thanks for the note and for jogging our own memories, Sandra. Karen’s enthusiasm for the homesteader lifestyle early on during her time in Kansas, as well as her awesome contributions to our pages, will forever be remembered fondly. – Editors


Hefty Cookware

The article about cast-iron cookware was an enjoyable read and brought back many memories from the time I used it. But one drawback was not mentioned: weight. The heavy weight, which helps make it so durable, causes considerable difficulty for folks with arthritis and similar problems in shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. Sadly for me, my cast-iron pans have been passed down to more able-bodied family members.

Love your magazine!

Donna Shelby
Rural Comanche, Oklahoma


Early Farm ‘Internships’

Your November/December 2016 article on the value of farm internships for young people is spot on (“Farm Apprenticeships: Find the Perfect Mentor”). Having been involved in internships and placements at the college level for 20 years, it is clear to me that it is not “what you know” that counts in today’s economy, but rather “what you have done.”

Regarding farm internships, the idea, however, is not new. Two hundred years ago, they called them “indentures.” In 1831, my great-great-grandfather David Hughson was indentured in New York to a farmer named Hiram Church. A picture of the original indenture agreement between Church and David’s father, William J. Hughson, is shown. The indenture called for 17-year-old David to work for three years while learning the farming trade, in return for which Church was to take care of the young man’s board, room, clothing, education, and medical needs. At the end of the indenture, David was to receive a horse, saddle, and bridle worth $100; a new suit of clothes; 50 dollars in cash; and a Bible. He went on to become a life-long farmer in Genesee County, New York.

William Dwyer
Somerville, Tennessee


Young Farmer

I have subscribed to your magazine for a year now, and love it. I am 16 and live and work on our family’s 100-cow dairy farm. I have raised chickens for many years, and since subscribing to your magazine have put in a large garden. I have used many of the ideas from your articles, including the hoop house, growing pumpkins with hull-less seeds, and winter sowing. I especially wanted to thank you for the peanut butter chocolate mud pie recipe in the November/December 2015 issue. I won a state merit award at the county fair with it, and it has been a huge hit at holiday gatherings. I would love to see an article about homemade herbicides and garden insect repellents, and which ones actually work. Looking forward to future issues!

Heather Kuhnau
Sauk City, Wisconsin


What’s a Girl to Do?

There have been times when I knew life was going to change, and change drastically.

My husband was recovering nicely from an accident that left him unable to work for eight months. During those long months, my income was our sole support, and I was grateful when he began searching for employment.

The work he found required we leave a large city and move deep into the pine forests of Escambia, Alabama.

I was happy for my husband. However, I found myself not only in culture shock, but there was no place for me to work. No one needed a book buyer in a pine forest in a rural area!

After a few months of feeling very sorry for myself, I found your magazine, and I began to devour each article. A new dream began to take shape, and the 4 acres I live on suddenly became a diamond in the rough.

It has been several years now, and with the help of your writers, I have a thriving chicken population, a vegetable garden, and many fruit trees. I have learned to can the produce we grow, and even how to cook it.

Now when people ask me what I do, I say, “I homestead.”

Thank you, Grit!
Margaret Morgan Silbernagel


We welcome letters from our readers. If you would like to comment on an article or share your opinions, send us an email (with photos, if available) to letters@grit.com, or send a letter via the USPS to:

Grit Mail Call
1503 S.W. 42nd St.
Topeka, KS 66609