Ever since I was in graduate school in Chicago, I have dreamt of heating my place with wood. I was the guy who bought an old potbelly stove and hooked it into the dormant coal chimney at my South Side apartment — feeding it with scraps from my woodworking projects and cut up chunks of American elm that the park district left at the curbs for the Sanitation Department to dispose of. I had “heard” that it was legal to take the barkless trunks and use them for lumber or firewood, which is what I did. I had also “heard” that it was illegal to take the wood because the trees had died from a fungal disease — I was never stopped for hoisting the logs into my pickup. Suffice it to say, that stove warmed my workshop very nicely, but I still had a substantial (to me) natural gas bill that barely kept the living quarters warm when winter winds blasted off Lake Michigan.
Since then, I have occupied a number of farmhouses, all of which had fireplaces or stoves, or, in one case, both. In each case, burning wood was a significant part of our winter warmth, but in the end we were still largely dependent on propane, fuel oil or electricity to run the geothermal heat pumps. And since I wrote the checks to the energy companies, I was ever aware that money was, quite literally, going up the flue. In South Dakota, my friend and partner in woodcutting crime, Jeff Lukens, and I would spend the year scouting aged shelterbelts and construction sites and offer to take out the unwanted timber for owners or foremen. In some cases we had to share the bucked and split firewood. In others, the spoils were ours. We lived with some anxiety that we would run out of timber to thin, but we never did. Once we were invited to clean out a grove with lots of bur oak — a super premium hardwood on the Dakota plains.
Years later I found myself in a 1768 vintage farmhouse in New Hampshire, surrounded by roughly 30 acres of woodland — white oak, poplar, birch, maple. Wow! Jeff would have flipped at the bounty. Since I was travelling so much at that time, I never got sufficient wood cut, split and seasoned to heat that house. It didn’t matter though, as I was not there to feed the stove very often — the fuel oil bill was staggering.
When I moved to Kansas, I finally achieved my dream. As luck would have it, my 1903 farmhouse had an old solid-fuel chimney in the center of the layout. And as it turns out, the chimney was sufficiently sound that it could be safely and easily lined with an insulated, flexible stainless flue. Fast forward through the finishing touches and the installation of a clean and efficient wood-burning stove, and I’m finally into my third year of cutting the propane dealer out of my budget — except during brief trips away, and to run the range and hot water heater. Top it all off with the fact that my farm produces sufficient Osage orange, hackberry, locust and walnut windfalls to keep my home fire burning — dreams really can come true.
Whether you’re working to cut your heating bill or planning the transition, I’d love to know what you’re up to this season. Please send me a note and a photo or two (at least 300 dpi, jpeg), if available, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the whole works may just wind up in a future issue.
See you in March,
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.