Grit Blogs > Country at Heart

How to Start a Fire

Country at HeartThe title may sound trivial, but if you're in a cold house and in desperate need of warmth, these tips may help. Now, when I mention starting a fire, I'm not referring to the wild fires our eccentric neighbor started that burned up half the world, neither am I referring to those destructive ones that destroy peoples' property, houses or lives or those that simply fill the house with smoke ... and that's all. So, don't smoke in the wilderness lest you burn up our much needed trees and forest's wood.

Fires were most important to us the year around. In winter as well as summer, the old-fashioned wood stove was used for cooking and boiling water for washing or bathing. In the winter, the heater (or fireplace) was used to warm the house or dry our socks (for school the next day) that had frozen on the clothes lines. So, a fire isn't something to take casually.

There are different kinds of fires, but I'll start with the one my dad built in the pecan orchard. This one was comprised of sticks, wood, paper, or any useless items that would burn, make a good blaze and give us a brief reprieve from the outside cold.

The second fire is the trash-burning one. This one had to be burned in a large 100-gallon barrel or if on the ground in a space that had been cleared away of any grass or other items that might spread beyond where it should be contained. This kind of burning also consisted of autumn leaves and any other debris from the yard that could be burned. There wasn't anything really methodical about this fire. Once we piled everything together, we stuck a match underneath the pile ... and up and away it went.

We also built fires that kept mosquitoes away. In an old bucket or large metal dish pan, we'd place some old, raggedy clothing. Once the fire was started (from underneath) and had burned the clothing just a little bit, we'd smother it out. We didn't need the flames so we dispensed with them. The smoke was what we wanted, because the smell became a "poison" that suffocated the mosquitoes and kept them at bay. Never heard of that one? Well, it's an old home remedy for those pesky, little blood suckers.

Now, the final fires are the most important ones, because these are the ones that were built everyday ... rain or shine ... sleet or snow. The fire built in the living or front room could consist of any kind of wood, including pine that gives off a piney aroma and a light, fluffy, white residue. This kind of wood is believed to stick to the stove and chimney and is not preferred for heating houses today. Back then, we used what we could get, and usually that was pine.

At the beginning of summer, we cleaned the wood-burning stove and  fireplaces and covered them until wintertime came back around. Actually, fireplaces or other open fires were used for cooking, but they are not the safest methods of cooking. If women weren't careful, their long dresses or sleeves got "licked" by the open flame and caused serious burns or even death.

The kitchen stove fire was a premium, because it allowed Mother to cook what we ate that kept us alive. Since pine gives off a strong, spicy odor, cooks tried to avoid its use, because the smell got into the food. Hickory, oak, and maple are good wood for cooking, plus cherry and mesquite, which we didn't have. The "builder" started off with wood splinters or kindling (small, thin pieces of wood that was shaved off when the larger pieces were cut). These tiny, thin pieces were placed on the stove's floor. Then larger pieces were laid on top until there was a nice pile of wood. Sometimes if the fire didn't "jump off" immediately, Dad poured a little coal oil or gasoline underneath the kindling, stuck a match underneath and the fire roared (like a rocket being propelled) to a nice, warm, reddish-orange start.   

So, there you have it ... now, let's fire up the fire.