Keeping a Fire


By Jack McCall



When I was growing up I often heard people use the phrase “we kept a fire.” I assumed that meant they maintained a fire burning somewhere in their house.

There was an art to keeping a fire going in a fireplace throughout the night. It involved mounding up the ashes on the remains of the backlog in the back of the fireplace and letting it smolder until morning. My friend, Jim Owen, reminded me recently that that practice was called “banking a fire.” If done properly it made for a quick start to the next morning’s fire.

The first fireplace I clearly remember was in my grandfather’s house in Brim Hollow. It was a big, deep, wide fireplace that featured a big backlog as part of every

fire. The backlog not only kept the fire going through the night but also served to “pitch” the heat of the fire out into the room.

That fireplace was the only source of heat in the house after we left the kitchen at the conclusion of supper. It was located in the room that served as living room, sewing room and bedroom. On winter’s nights we gathered around the fireplace to keep warm.

That was a cold room. In later years, I noticed that the old house had no insulation in it.

Even the crawl space underneath was open to the winter’s wind. Away from the fire, it was almost as cold inside as it was outside.

Even sitting in front of the fire would not keep your back warm. Every now and then it was necessary to stand up and back up to the fireplace to warm your back.

Some women were known to pull the backs of their dress tails up over their waists and back up to the fire to warm their backsides. There were no fire screens back in those days. If the fire was popping that was a good way to get a spark in your bloomers!

There is something soothing and almost magical about sitting in front of a rolling fire. You can lose yourself in thought as you gaze into the warm, dancing flames.

And there is something special about the warmth that comes from burning wood.

I think it’s just better for you … as in “more healthy.” And, of course, there’s the smell.

To my way of thinking, there’s nothing quite as welcoming as coming in out of cold weather to the feel and smell of a wood fire.

Waking up to a cold house will really get you going. Little wonder there was such a stir when everyone crawled out of bed in the winter. You had to keep moving to keep from freezing!

My grandmother cooked on a wood stove, which made the kitchen the next stop on cold mornings. I can remember huddling around the stove as I waited for breakfast.

During most of my growing up years we heated our house with a wood stove. Early models required some attention during the night. The later models came with thermostats which made it easier to keep a fire going through the night.

Of course, fireplaces and wood stoves require fuel, which called for lots of wood cutting. My father rigged up a mini-sawmill on our John Deere tractor, complete with saw blade and belt. We sawed up many a cedar slab with that old tractor. Dry cedar makes for mighty fine kindling.

And I suppose my dad wore out a half dozen chainsaws cutting up wood over the years. We all came to understand what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “He who cuts his own wood warms himself twice.”

When I moved my young family to 512 Jackson Avenue in Carthage in the early 1980’s, we found the house came with wonderful neighbors and a brick fireplace.

I guess my upbringing got the best of me. I installed a wood stove insert in the fireplace.

On winter’s nights when our boys were small, I would awaken during the night and replenish the wood supply in the stove. And as a young father, I would sit before the fire in those quiet moments and think about those little boys sleeping safely and soundly. I would smell the wood burning and feel the fire’s warmth. And I would be overcome with gratitude for all my many blessings and the knowledge that Someone was watching over me.

That will keep your fire burning.

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By Jack McCall

Copyright 2016 by Jack McCall

Copyright 2016 by Jack McCall

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